How race poisoned the DA

Gwen Ngwenya writes on the deep roots of the party's current travails

Here is the Democratic Party (DP) position on race and redress, as set out in its 1999 manifesto:

 “Asmal’s assertion – that SA needs racism now in order to ‘put right’ the damage done by past racism – is typical of what passes for argument on the part of ANC hacks. The ideas in this manifesto clearly demonstrate that this notion is simply not true. It is possible to deal with the problems Asmal identifies – inequality, lack of access and exclusion – without reference to race. Indeed, race is a red herring in this debate…”

The manifesto states that this position rests on “the clear and unambiguous principles on which the Democratic Party is grounded” and thus, the party’s purpose was to contrast “the ANC’s race-based approach to transformation with our vision of non-racial change.”

Twenty years later, here is the Democratic Alliance (DA) position on race and redress, as set out in its 2019 manifesto:

 “The reason that the DA supports a programme of race-based redress is, simply put, because it is an important part of our country’s reconciliation project and vital for justice. Redress by definition is a project aimed at redressing a past wrong, and once that wrong has been remedied, the need for said redress will by definition fall away. This means that a programme of redress does need a sunset clause. As a party that believes in liberal values and principles, we would seek to ensure that we move to a non-racial position as soon as a successful redress programme has been implemented.”

 It proceeds to state:

 “Race-based redress, that truly seeks to broadly empower Black South Africans, recognises that a particular group was disadvantaged in the past on the basis of their race and seeks to right that specific wrong.”

 Over the course of the last two decades, the DP/DA has moved systematically from the ‘foundational principle’ that race-based policy be rejected, to the position that race-based policy is an essential part of “our country’s reconciliation project and vital for justice.” 

In doing so, the very ANC position that it both explicitly cited and rejected in 1999, it adopted wholesale in 2019.

How did this happen? How did the DA become the “ANC hack” it so clinically dismissed in 1999? The answer is slowly. It was a long road that began with ambiguity setting in, followed by confusion and contradiction, and then finally, total capitulation. The result was a fundamental about-turn.

This essay tracks how the poison that is race-based policy gradually infected DA thinking through a succession of leaders.

Remarkably, today it is defended as essential, both morally and in principle. But the effects of a party that has imbibed race are visible - the myth of race is linked to more of the DA’s various travails than many realise. Race turns everything rancid; it destroys merit and elevates mediocrity, it shuns principle and critical thinking and replaces it with a racial logic which defines how arguments are made and won, but most fatally it prostrates the individual before a false and hegemonic myth, that race is real.

The DA soon will be left no choice but to purge itself of race-based policy; it is that or death for the party. It is too late now for the party to arrive there through conviction, it will simply be the only principled course of action available to it after having indulged every other pragmatic antidote.

This is the story of how it arrived at this impasse.

1. 1998: DA rejects racial classification; votes against the Employment Equity Bill

When the Employment Equity Bill was introduced in 1998 the DA took a stance against race-based policy that it would never again articulate with the same conviction in the 20 years to come. The DA’s position paper, submitted in committee, proposed that instead of reinforcing apartheid racial categories, ‘designated groups’ should be defined as ‘any person or categories of persons disadvantaged by unfair discrimination.” [1]

Tony Leon, then Democratic Party leader, had the following to say in opposition to the Employment Equity Bill in the National Assembly

Group-based thinking as proposed in the Bill formed the cornerstone of apartheid and we have a moral, if not a political, duty to bear witness against its re-introduction in the guise of getting rid of apartheid.” [2]

The DA voted against the Bill and closed the 20th century with a ‘fight back’ election campaign that, in part, pushed back against the self-serving re-racialisation of economic relations in South Africa for the benefit of the politically connected. It would bring to an end an epoch of great conviction and principled clarity of purpose.

2. 2003: DA accepts racial classification as ‘plus points’, but votes against Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Bill

By 2003 it was evident that the DA’s language around race had begun to change.

There was a growing consensus in broader public debate that existing policies had achieved little to deracialise patterns of wealth in the economy and that more needed to be done. That idea gained steady impetus with the formation of the BEE Commission, the precursor to the ANC’s signature economic policy. The process culminated in the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Bill, among other things.

On the whole the speech delivered in parliament by the DA, in opposition to the B-BBEE Bill, was compelling but the party wittingly or unwittingly freed race from its illegitimacy.

“The DA believes that jobs are the surest way of empowering the marginalised and the poor, and that empowerment criteria such as race, gender and disability should be plus factors, but not the sole considerations when affirmative action appointments are made, or contracts awarded.”[3]

Notice the introduction of “plus factors”. Still, despite a more sympathetic accommodation of race than in the past, the DA voted against the Bill.

Significantly, while the language of race had marginally been given acceptance in parliament, the DA National Manifesto for the 2004 general election remained resolute:

“Our challenge is to redress inequalities based on race without defining our future as being race-based... The DA will strive to eliminate imbalances in our economy with measures that focus on individual merit, not race, and which strive for equality of opportunity.”

3. 2005: DA Federal Council embraces race-based empowerment under certain conditions

As of 2005, race begins to creep into the official policy of the Democratic Alliance to a significant degree. The following is an extract from the ‘Equality and Corrective Action’ policy, adopted by Federal Council in 2005. It states:

“But in order to advance the goal of equality and the reflection of the full diversity of our society in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, belief, culture and able-bodiedness, underrepresented categories should enjoy “plus points” or favourable consideration when they are well qualified for appointment as the next man or woman; or when they show comparable promise.”

“The DA believes it is appropriate to encourage and incentive institutions across society to set their own targets for achieving diversity based not on racial grouping but on the full range of SA’s colours and creeds.”

The idea of “plus points” has now been formalised and, in addition, there is also support for targets as long as institutions set their own. The policy confusingly proposes that these targets would be based on “SA’s colours” and not racial grouping. What this means in practice is not easily intelligible.

At this stage the DA did not vociferously support racial classification, but the manner in which it articulated its opposition is more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Ambiguity and soft language on what should have been a hard principle left the door ajar for a more passionate support of race-based policy in the future. In time, as the party grew and members from opposing political persuasions swelled the ranks, that door would swing wide open.

4. 2006: Rejection of race classification recedes, concerns over technical aspects of BEE implementation take the forefront

The idea that race was, in and of itself, an illegitimate premise was receding from the DA’s critique of Affirmative Action (read Employment Equity) and BEE policies. The party’s critique became focused on the rigidity of racial quotas, as opposed to race per se. The evil of racial classification was reduced to its impact on merit and not its inherent falsehood. As long as merit was not compromised, it seemed racial categories could stay.

In 2006 Tony Leon wrote in SA Today:

“The question remains: do affirmative action and BEE policies actually help the people they are intended to? Theoretically, they can. If these policies are implemented without sacrificing merit, it is possible to achieve a “win-win” situation in which we expand opportunity, accelerate economic growth, and improve service delivery for all. Indeed, the DA intends to pursue affirmative action and BEE policies in the municipalities we govern—and we are going to do so fairly and effectively.”

The DA was, in fairness, not alone in beginning to succumb to race. The ANC’s hegemonic hold on public debate, and the intractable manner in which BEE in particular and affirmative action in general had become synonymous with ideas of redress and justice, had all-comers in its hold. To oppose either of these two ideas was to self-define as a pariah, and to be treated as such. Few, if any rejected the idea of race-based policy from first principles.

5. 2009: The DA is silent on the racial premise underpinning BEE

In its electoral offer in 2009 there was little sign of the DA questioning the racial edifice upon which BBBEE and EE policy was established. Instead, the DA sought to refine the technical margins of BBBEE policy.

The DA’s 2009 manifesto stated:

“The DA is fully behind broad-based black economic empowerment. If correctly implemented, it will pull people into the economy, reduce unemployment and stimulate growth… The DA will review the BEE scorecard to ensure that it accurately prioritises the interests of those who have fallen by the wayside, not those who are already reaping the rewards of the new South Africa.”

Among other things, it drew attention to shifting an emphasis on ownership to skills training, preventing absue of the system and establishing an ombudsman. But all of this was within the universe of ANC thinking, for the premise had been surrendered to.

6. 2012: DASO at UCT rejects race-based policy

It is necessary to understand that while the party proper was conceding its ideological territory to the ANC, it was not without dissenting voices. In 2012, the Democratic Alliance Students’ Organisation (DASO) at UCT came to the decision that a clear rejection of race-based admissions policy would inform their stance on campus.

Simultaneously, the party appeared relatively more open to facilitating such ideas, and giving them some small space to breathe. In years to come, dissent from the party line, particularly on issues of race, would often be shut down and suppressed. But, at the time, the Chair of the Federal Executive would approve the DASO Submission on the UCT Admissions Policy. Among other things, it stated:

Excluding race from the criteria ensures that those whom society should reasonably expect to compete do so and learn to navigate themselves in the world on the basis of their skills, talents and hard work.”

And the accompanying DASO UCT press statement read:

“There are a number of policy options that give expression to an equality of opportunity approach as opposed to an equality of racial outcomes. DASO supports UCT’s on-going research into a sophisticated model of applicant selection, using appropriately designed entrance assessments.”

7. 2013: For the first time the DA votes in favour of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity

DASO UCT at the time was a backwater, it was not moved by the same currents shaping the party and vice versa not a ripple of what had occurred at UCT reached the party. Soon after giving the green light to a non-racial policy at UCT, the DA voted in favour of race-based policy for the country. The door, once ajar, was now wide open.

The record of proceedings of the Portfolio Committee for Trade & Industry show that the DA initially attempted to remove race as the basis of the majority of components in B-BBEE legislation[4],[5]

“Mr W James (DA) said...most of the components of the scorecard could be non-racial with only management control and ownership, out of necessity, having a racial bias. He added there should be a sunset clause to allow for scaling it down and out of the system over a set period of years… Mr W James remarked that...the DA had reservations about the extension of the powers of the Minister and the racial basis of the legislation.  The party would prefer that a class-based approach was followed.” 

In a written submission to the committee, Wilmot James MP, proposed the following definition for ‘black people’

“Black people is a term of convenience and synonym for historically disadvantaged persons”

Here, perhaps for the first time, we see the idea that race is a suitable proxy for disadvantage, an idea onto which the DA would later latch onto, to justify the use of race. It was, however, becoming harder and harder for the DA to avoid the confusion and incoherence that its ideologically ambivalence was engendering internally. Along with race, contradiction was beginning to define DA thinking.

Email correspondence from Helen Zille to Lindiwe Mazibuko, and other party figures, indicates that they were not on the same page as how to proceed with the Bill. Zille wrote:

“We can oppose the Bill on this basis, while making it clear that we support genuinely broad based black economic empowerment… As far as the EEA is concerned. It is a stick approach, rather than the carrot approach… We thus support BEE and AA and EE if it fulfils the intended purpose which is to redress the legacy of apartheid. The ANC's past and current strategies do not.” [6]

In response, Mazibuko argued:

“On issues as important as these, we must be directed by substance, not speculation. What is the substantiation for the claim that "both these bills will curb black advancement", for example? [7]

Race had started to manifest in the DA’s language some time before. But ideas like “black advancement” now populated internal thinking. Zille herself was not immune. When it came to appointments, excellence and merit, which require no qualification, were replaced by sentiments like “Fit for Purpose”. The explicit purpose was never explained, allowing the DA simultaneously to feed an appetite in the fourth estate for greater racial representativity (i.e. the “purpose” was diversity) and an internal commitment to excellence (i.e. the “purpose” was merit). One could read into any appointment whatever one wanted.

Ultimately, the DA voted in favour of both the B-BBEE Amendment Bill and the Employment Equity Amendment Bill. According to some insider accounts this was a result of negligence; others suggested it was by design.

Helen Zille, writing in SA Today, had the following to say:

“Some people will argue that liberals cannot, under any circumstances, support a Bill that includes a race-based definition (even if we support the Bills' main purpose to prevent ‘fronting' and even if we unambiguously support redress for the injustices of apartheid.) But not all liberals agree with this view… After very careful consideration, I believe that rejecting this Bill, even in its imperfect form, will be more harmful for the essential project of economic inclusion than the alternative… Of course, racial definitions leave loopholes for crony enrichment under the fig-leaf of race-based redress.”

The DA’s support for these two bills and the effect on the party cannot be underestimated. Zille tried hard to explain to the party that race cannot be accepted as the basis for policy, but it was the practical consequence of endorsing the idea that most came to define the party zeitgeist. From this point on, it became almost impossible for the DA to reject race from first principles.

8. 2013: Federal Council decides BEE must start moving away from race, but race must remain for some categories as well as to further diversity

Some small resistance remained. In an interview on PowerFM in September 2013, months after the parliamentary fracas, Wilmot James had the following to say on the DA’s position[8]

“We don’t believe in the use of racial targets or racial quotas when it comes to how the BEE system is designed. We believe that we should leave it up to companies to define their own targets, and those targets are diversity targets that are on ownership, management and employees. “

Asked whether it was thus correct to say the DA was not, “into black economic empowerment” rather, “into diversity economic empowerment”, James replied, “That sounds a bit clumsy but that does summarise our position, yes.” James’ record on race-based policy is complex. He seems to have taken positions for and against it. Where his personal convictions end and party discipline begins is difficult to say, but there is much on record to suggest he had a principled problem with the idea.

This would precipitate further internal disagreement but the room for dissent was getting smaller and smaller. Sent out to re-establish the party line, then national spokesperson, Mmusi Maimane refuted the idea that the DA had abandoned race in favour of a notion of diversity,[9] stating, “The [DA’s proposed] legislation in and of itself is an acknowledgement of race. That component is not going to change." 

His position was supported by Lindiwe Mazibuko, who added in an interview:[10]

“I think that it has to be one of the measures, as it is in the scorecard model that race has to be taken into account. I’m in favour of you know over time drawing down the number of racial categories we have, so I like this idea of a broad definition for black. I don’t like people having to say I’m coloured, I’m Indian, I’m this kind of black and that kind of black because it entrenches those Verwoerdian almost pencil test type categories.”

In the same interview Lindiwe Mazibuko had the following to say on Employment Equity[11]

“...when I’m recruiting I recruit on the basis of merit. I put out an advert and I say this is who I want to hire, I get a whole lot of applicants- all of those applicants turn out to be white and male. And I think gosh, I haven’t cast the net wide enough. So even at the pool stage I’m saying to myself I’m not going to be able to make this choice unless I have a diverse enough pool to choose from.”

“...So, let’s say I throw the net even wider and then the pool looks much more diverse, much more like a much bigger version of the group of people I want to hire. I interview, and I shortlist 10 people, and all 10 people have got more or less, people are not identical, but they have more or less the same merits, values etc. Now I have to choose say 5 candidates- I defer to the black candidates. That is how the DA envisions employment equity”

This position advises that employers go to great lengths to get a diverse pool of similarly qualified candidates, and once achieved the black candidates are to be given preference. It is difficult to come to any other interpretation of Mazibuko’s words here other than the applicant pool must remain open until one is able to fill the vacancy with a black person.

Under such a regime white candidates can only be hired if there is no other similarly qualified black person or alternatively, one assumes, if the hiring organisation already had ‘enough’ black South Africans. Hiring white South Africans then exposes employers to one of two critiques: not having thrown the net wide enough, or prejudice if they suggest they could not find suitably qualified black candidates.

As a result of the confusion, in an attempt to clarify the DA’s position on race-based policies, the Federal Council approved the Green Paper on Economic Inclusion in November 2013. It read:

“We believe that the scorecard and Codes of Good Practice must... start moving away from an exclusive focus on racial targets and race-based redress to become a tool to incentivise economic practices that broaden the economic base and enhance economic inclusion on a non-racial basis.”

“The DA does not support quantitative racial targets for employment equity, and especially not the ethnic breakdown of racial targets into categories of previously disadvantaged people as proposed in the current amendments to the Codes of Good Practice.

In order to advance the goal of equality and the reflection of the full diversity of our society in terms of ‘race’, ethnicity, sex, belief, culture and able-bodiedness, underrepresented categories should enjoy favourable consideration when they are as well qualified for appointment as the next man or woman, or when they show comparable promise.”

“We believe that diversity can be promoted through dedicated efforts to attract, develop and retain talented staff from a diversity of backgrounds, and propose that talent and diversity management strategies with objectives and action steps determined by entities themselves should be recognised in the employment equity scorecard.”

The Green Paper suggests that the DA was in favour of pulling back on the use of race, in line with what Wilmot James had indicated in the PowerFM interview. But it was muddled - race was to take preference when candidates were as qualified but also when they were not as qualified (i.e. show promise).

The phrase ‘show comparable promise’ would reflect another important slide away. Long gone were the days when the DA proclaimed it stood for ‘merit and not race’. Not only could race be used as a trump card against other similarly qualified candidates, but now it could be used a trump card against more highly qualified candidates.

By way of comparison, the DP in 1998 had this to say about potential (i.e. promise) in the Employment Equity Bill.

“ Many employees might have the potential to do the job but might in fact not have the necessary skills to actually do the job, given their lack of training or experience. By employing a person who might not live up to his or her potential the employer faces a situation where he must retain and promote such a person, with disastrous consequences.

The current wording of the Bill supersedes the requirements of formal qualifications. prior learning or experience, in favour of mere potential. As stated above, mere potential is simply not enough to prove that an employee will develop the necessary skills to be able to do the job.”

Hiring based on potential should be at the discretion of the employer, not a formal entitlement through policy. Not unlike investing in a business with potential, hiring an employee on the basis of promise when there are more suitably qualified candidates incurs risk. And it flies against freedom to enter into transactions to force institutions to take a risk, which the DA has no intention to underwrite.

The Green Paper does not suggest the policy would be voluntary but, even if it were, the DA should not have advocated for it. It gave license to every applicant (and employer) to use promise as a trump card against more highly qualified individuals, potentially introducing and augmenting mediocrity. Soon enough, this idea would make its way into the DA’s own selection processes, with predictable results.

9. 2015: DA leadership change cements DA support of race-based policy, 2015

In 2015 Mmusi Maimane was elected with 90% of all votes, beating Wilmot James to become the leader of the Democratic Alliance. His election would cement DA support of race-based policy.

Maimane’s acceptance speech immediately set the tone:

“And I want to make it absolutely clear today that non-racialism does not mean being colour-blind. We cannot pretend that apartheid never happened. We cannot ignore the fact that apartheid was a system that defined us by the colour of our skin… These experiences shaped me, just like they shaped so many young black people of my generation. And that is why I simply don’t agree with those who say they don’t see colour. Because, if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me.”

Maimane exploited the tactic of the race protagonist, who makes redress subservient to race based policy; and by so doing, suggested that to argue against race-based policy was synonymous with being anti-redress. It remains an intellectually shallow line of argument. The need for measures to address the injustices of the past are common cause, what is at issue is the substance and form of those measures.

But in his speech were the elements of something more pernicious than mere logical fallacy, it contained the seeds of racial essentialism. It is striking that in under 30 seconds Maimane was able to decry apartheid as a system that defined individuals by the colour of their skin and then proceed to define himself by the colour of his skin, all without irony.

To be colour blind does not imply a literal inability to see the differentiation in skin colour among people. Colour blindness is a normative principle that individuals should not infer attributes about people on the basis of their skin. In turn, in a colour-blind society opportunities should not be delineated by race. And because it is normative and not descriptive, few are under the illusion that such a society has already been achieved in South Africa.

Maimane is either unfamiliar with the meaning of the term colour blind or is familiar with it but rejects it; neither option is cause for comfort.

In the year following his election as leader of the DA, Maimane continued to drive his message of hyper-racial awareness and suspicion:[12]

“For every incident of overt racism, there are thousands of incidences of casual every day racism. It manifests itself in simple ways like talking down to people, laughing when people pronounce an English word differently, not bothering to acknowledge people, in fact believing somebody’s accent is a sign of their intelligence. These Democrats, are all subtle forms of racial superiority.”

This is what hyper-racial sensitivity does; it makes us racially suspicious of one another. There are a range of attitudes in normal human interactions; one can be patronizing, sarcastic, mocking, and rude for example. Experiencing such attitudes is unpleasant but it is not necessarily racist. All of the interactions Maimane highlights as incidences of racial superiority many Afrikaans speakers will attest to having experienced. A society that is hyper-aware of race is more likely to lose the ability to distinguish between racism and unpleasant interactions that occur even among people of the same race. It is load the gun. It is likely also true that a society which discounts race might be less able to diagnose racism when it occurs. But there is no compelling reason or market research to suggest that the majority of South Africans are racist; if that is the case then it is preferable to misdiagnose some cases of racism as something else, than to reach the stage where everything else is treated as racism.

The language of race which was to become Mmusi Maimane’s modus operandi would quickly be directed inwards towards his own party and not just externally. Speaking at the Daily Mavericks’ The Gathering, he would say this in response to the DA being a white party[13]

“63% of the DA’s public representatives are black and the party caucus in the National Assembly will be more diverse after the 2019 elections.”

Just a few months prior, Maimane had extolled the DA as being the most diverse party in South Africa. And yet while the DA did not believe in quotas, it would according to him be made ‘more’, one assumes numerically, diverse.

This is the perversion of believing that diversity will function as anything other than racial quotas or demographic representation. The moral superiority of ‘diversity’ targets seems to lie in the idea that racial preference is justified as long as one does not place a number on it. Except there is always a number - the country’s demographics - and this becomes clear when its advocates speak of ‘more’ or ‘not enough’ diversity.

10.  2016:  Race-based thinking infects internal DA rules

On 19 January 2016, Maimane stated:

 “…from today, I will require our structures, at constituency, regional and provincial levels, to set targets for the recruitment and development of candidates for public office. These targets, and the progress made towards achieving them, will be reviewed regularly by the Federal Executive.”

 He said his goal was to ensure that, “by 2019, our parliamentary and legislature caucuses, and our decision-making structures at all levels, reflect the diversity of our complex society.”

On 1 October, he stated: 

“In the coming months, the party will finalise a diversity plan that will require DA structures – from branch level to national level – to set targets for the recruitment and development of excellent black candidates for public office. These targets, and the progress made towards achieving them, will be reviewed regularly by FedEx.”

It is unclear to what extent these new regulations were ever implemented, but they were indicative of the DA’s systematic embrace of race-based thinking. There can be no way to measure or enforce targets without reference to demographic representivity. Nevertheless, whether formally implemented or not, informally this impulse now holds sway: there is no shadow cabinet or appointment in the DA today that is finalised without “diversity” (the perception that said cabinet or appointment be ‘suitably’ racially representative) being a core overriding factor. 

11.  2018: Federal Congress approves development of new non-racial economic framework

In early 2018 a newsletter was published from the leader’s office which was altogether different in its tone, and suggested a shift in Maimane’s and the DA’s attitude towards race in policy.

The Feburary 2018 Bokamoso began with the following unequivocal words:[14]

Budget 2018/19 brings to mind the popular quote: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. In the name of social justice, the ANC government has clung to populist policies such as restrictive labour legislation, a large public sector wage bill, a high degree of state ownership of the economy, over-powerful unions (especially SADTU) and restrictive, race-based empowerment policies… We need a wholesale change in empowerment policies, to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment, towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation that still traps millions of South Africans in poverty.

This piece strives to be an objective account of events, in the many protagonists own words. However, it is almost impossible to not write what follows without reference to events of which I was I personally a part.

The renewed line of argument, i.e. to move away from race-based policy, came two months after a workshop held in late 2017 with a group of DA public representatives including Maimane. At this breakaway I, then as COO of the IRR, presented the case for a non-racial economic alternative. Not long after I was invited to head up policy for the DA. But, whatever the intent on paper to move away from race, it came to count for little when it came to conviction and principle in the public domain.

Four months later, as the Head of Policy I presented a draft framework to delegates ahead of the July 2018 Federal Council, in part it proposed to, “...scrap the disastrous B-BBEE policy and replace it with an ESG empowerment index.” The framework proposed an index that would include, “a list of broader, non-racial criteria.”

This draft proposal was accepted. The minutes of the Federal Council held 14 and 15 July 2018 reflect the decision taken:

“Federal Council agreed on the framework of the policy. The policy proposals would now be improved within the framework by means of policy commissions that would take place by the end of August 2018. The policy would be finalised by the end of September 2018.”

The Federal Council had, in light of recent history, given a momentous mandate in agreeing to the development of an alternative non-racial empowerment policy. But, when that decision was made public in August, the entire party hierarchy about-turned.

12.  2018: Democratic Alliance leadership back peddles from decision to develop non-racial alternative

On the same day the news was made public, News24 followed up a news story announcing that the ‘DA’s highest decision-making body ditches BEE’[15], with one that would state:

“DA’s federal council chairperson James Selfe has disputed claims that the opposition party has decided to do away with its BEE policy and search for a broader economic empowerment policy.”

All the confusion and contradiction returned, as the party machinery went into overdrive in response to what it saw as a direct threat to its electoral prospects the following year and which it believed where now intricately linked to the perception that the DA supports race-based policy in general and BEEE in particular. Any pretence of internal debate was shut down and, as with Wilmot James in years gone by, the full force of party communications was exercised to supress any possible doubt or confusion on the subject. The policy process would continue behind the scenes but only nominally, any appetite for debate or discussion had instantaneously evaporated.

Nevertheless, a draft policy, more akin to a discussion paper, was submitted to the DA Leader and DA Federal Chairperson. It proposed a non-racial policy focused on assisting the wealth accumulation of the many instead of the few. It would never see the light of day.

13.  2019: Federal Council decides against debate on an alternative non-racial empowerment framework and retains support of B-BBEE

The alternative empowerment policy was never presented to delegates of Federal Council, and was shelved at the discretion of a body subordinate to Federal Council - the National Management Committee. It would have been incongruous for Federal Council delegates to decide not to receive a policy they had commissioned.

City Press reports reflected the climate at the February 2019 Federal Council,[16]

‘DA leader Mmusi Maimane put a lid on an attempt to reintroduce the debate on BEE, telling those pushing for racial classification to be scrapped from party policy to “shut up and get to work”.’

Instead, the DA reverted to race and at the last Federal Council before elections a manifesto was presented which attempted to present DA support of B-BBEE as a radical shift. In truth it was almost indistinguishable from what had been put forth in the DA’s 2014 manifesto. And underpinning it all, was the concession that race was a necessary foundation.

“The reason that the DA supports a programme of race-based redress is, simply put, because it is an important part of our country’s reconciliation project and vital for justice.

And besides, the DA ‘s technical proposals for change generally mirrored existing ANC and government policy.

Employee share ownership, skills, job creation, enterprise development are already areas which are rewarded by the Codes. It is only a party that has truly lost sense of the importance of policy, that can present the policy direction of another political party as new and as its own.

In the end an alternative to BEE- whether non-racial or not, was never debated and therefore never adopted. The DA went into the election with the same electoral offer on empowerment as the ANC.

14.   2019 and Beyond: Back to where it all began

The 2019 election was a poor one for the Democratic Alliance. Its national support dropped to 20.77% and it failed to bring the ANC below 50% in Gauteng, a prospect it had invested a great deal of hope in. The reasons for this are complex and many but, without doubt, one core contributing factor, is the DA’s ideological uncertainty and the accompanying ambiguity and confusion on fundamental matters of principle, like race-based policy. In turn, the manner in which race has come to infect not just policy but party behaviour and decision-making.

The DA has fallen a long way from the clear, unambiguous and conviction-driven position it held in 1999. Along the way, it has tried every trick in the book to justify the use of race, as essential to redress. It has argued that:

- Race is a proxy for disadvantage;

- Race is a dangerous but pragmatic necessity;

- Race is a temporary solution that, if limited by a sunset clause, can be endured;

- Racial targets are an alternative to racial quotas

- Diversity is acceptable euphemism for demographic representivity

But, you feel, it has run out of options to torture the unprincipled into a principle. Inevitably, and having done everything to suppress, negate, disprove or just ignore the liberal position: that raced-based policy is anathema to liberal thought, it now only has one place left to turn – back to the “foundational” principle the DP identified in 1999, for so long relegated to the backwaters of DA thought.

The DA is currently reviewing its processes, after its poor election result. The review has given Maimane enough conviction to dare suggest again, publicly, that the DA move away from race-based policy or at least, to scrap it, as he did in this week’s Presidency budget vote speech:

“We must start by admitting that B-BBEE has not delivered economic inclusion. It is a fig leaf for redress and it does nothing for 99% of South Africa’s excluded citizens. Scrap B-BBEE, Mr President, and replace it with a plan that offers real broad-based inclusion in our economy.”

His remarks were celebrated as “brave” and “visionary” by some party faithful, a remarkable response given the party has on its books an entire policy designed to achieve exactly what Maimane calls for and yet which was suppressed in the name of electoral expediency. Bravery was hard to find back then.

This decision is not as a result of bravery or principle. It is as a result of history being brought down to bear on the Mmusi Maimane’s lack of conviction. More remarkable still when the DA’s manifesto, not two months old, advocated for the very thing Maimane is now calling to be scrapped. Few things help a party introspect better than a crisis. That this particular crisis, largely of Maimane’s own making, has caused some introspection, is as much an indictment of him as it a far longer legacy that precedes him.

The test now is whether the DA which has been poisoned by race can remedy its own affliction.

Conclusion: Where to from here?

a) Going through the eye of the needle

By way of conclusion it is worth very briefly interrogating some of the principles at play here. Most people want to reject race but they also want to hang on to notions of racial diversity or at the very least self-classification. Non-racialism is not a broad church and the path to it is narrow. These are some of the issues the DA needs to consider, when it does eventually sum up the courage to return to its foundational principles.

On racial diversity

If racial classification is wrong because it sorts people into fictional categories and then treats them differently on the basis of those categories, then racial quotas and racial diversity targets are wrong for the same principle. Selection for racial diversity changes the principle to: racial classification is wrong only when there is a number placed on it, but as long as you don’t put a number to it you can treat people differently on the basis of skin colour.

If that is what you believe, then you are not opposed to racial classification you are opposed to putting numbers on racial classification; an altogether different principle. That principle too deserves challenge because there often is a silent number to racial diversity. When proponents of racial diversity say the DA is not diverse ‘enough’ or that they would like to diversify the DA ‘more’, they use numerical language. That numerical language exposes the unspoken reality of a benchmark, and that benchmark is demographic representation.


Some may say, surely it is ok to have a policy of self-classification because for some people their race is an important part of their identity. Of course, the racial myth has become an important part of many people’s identity, but their belief in the myth does not make the myth real. There are social myths just as there are religious myths; it is not necessary for a political party or government to recognise them as real in their policies. That does not preclude people from referring to themselves by the categories imposed by the myth if they so choose.

One could respond too, that the social construct of race exists. It absolutely does, and it is assisted by a political infrastructure that gives it legitimacy. The idea of race will be dealt significant damage by a political framework that refuses to grant it legitimacy. What we need instead of race-based policy is to enact policies to fight the myth of race in society.

It is possible for the DA to reject race-based economic policies while retaining diversity and/or notions of self-classification, at least then the needle moves in the right direction. But it does mean the principle of racial classification remains on life support. And while it lives it remains a threat to non-racialism*.

*By non-racialism I mean the absence of racial classification and racial differential treatment in policy now. I do not mean ‘mutant non-racialism’. This kind of non-racialism will come only after some mutation. Its proponents call for racialised policy in the present, but promise that in an indefinite future that racialism will mutate into real non-racialism.

Value debate, don’t suppress it

As important perhaps as the outcome of a debate on race-based policy in the DA, is the space to have it. The present policy on race remained not as a result of debate, but its absence. Any position that cannot withstand critique will be weak, but policy that emerges from a crucible will be stronger. The need to create and protect the space for debate should be a bipartisan issue, and supported by all regardless of their position.

Does non-racialism have the numbers in the DA?

Certainly there are many people in support of the idea, whether they will stand up and speak for it is another matter. The number of people who articulated their support of moving away from race and defended it at the last federal council in 2018 before the election could be counted on one hand. Those who privately voiced their support, however, were plentiful.

It is difficult to say whether they are a silent majority or minority, they will need to speak up in order to be counted in the final tally. I have no doubt that there will be a time in the not so distant future where the DA will abandon race-based policy. Then you will struggle to find those who supported it. Already, some that were silent are beginning to support the idea, and rightfully so, it is not too late to stand up and be counted.

But there are absolute political survivalists who will change only when the political weather vane is absolutely certain. In favour of race when it is popular, and against it again only when that too becomes popular. Because they believe nobody is keeping score. 

Let them be disabused of that notion, the DA is no longer a party that fits into one vehicle, and for whose activities nobody cares to keep record. There will be a record. Perhaps one can make a plea then not for principle, but to think of their legacy.

For now however,

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”[17]


[1] http://pmg-assets.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/docs/1998/980728dp.htm

[2] /party/this-bill-is-a-pernicious-piece-of-social-engineer

[3] https://www.parliament.gov.za/storage/app/media/Docs/hansard/104748_1.doc

[4] https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/15410/

[5] https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/15337/

[6] Politicsweb /news-and-analysis/bbbee-and-ee-the-zille-mazibuko-correspondence

[7] Politicsweb /news-and-analysis/bbbee-and-ee-the-zille-mazibuko-correspondence

[8] https://soundcloud.com/powerfm987/eusebius-mckaiser-asks-the-da

[9] https://mg.co.za/article/2013-09-11-to-bee-or-not-the-bee-the-das-dilemma

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cX-dHlIuLU

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMtoVYlm-Q4

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1577&v=5mWlczRilNw

[13] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-12-07-the-gathering-video-session-5-mmusi-maimane-in-the-hot-seat/

[14] https://www.da.org.za/2018/02/bokamoso-budget-2018-19-perfectly-illustrates-reality-populism-2

[15] https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/das-highest-decision-making-body-ditches-bee-saying-the-policy-is-not-sustainable-20180804

[16] https://city-press.news24.com/News/shut-up-mmusi-maimane-puts-his-foot-down-on-bee-debate-20190210

[17] Martin Luther King