Race and the DA

Mike Berger says the official opposition will never be able to outbid the ANC or EFF when it comes to racialised politics

In their recent letter to delegates to the upcoming DA Federal Congress Michael Cardo and Gavin Davis claim that a "progressive faction" and "Black caucus" within the DA is introducing an ANC-lite approach to race and gender which threatens to contaminate the hitherto pristine liberal ethos of the Party.

They base this claim on 'media reports' but also on the more substantive basis of certain proposed amendments to the constitution of the DA which they included in their post. It is the substantive amendments and the issue of the 'individual versus the group' which concern me here.

To simplify I enclose the offending clauses (for a more complete quote go to Cardo and Davis's original post - see above):

"Diversity is one of South Africans richest assets. The Party celebrates diversity and strives to ensure that every group, every language, every religion and every traditional custom is respected and upheld;...The Party will to the best of its ability attempt to replicate diversity in its own ranks”.

And, further, that "all female members will automatically be members of the Democratic Alliance Women’s Network unless they indicate to the contrary.” (My emphasis added.)

Cardo and Davis see the topic as one of sufficient importance to merit debate amongst a wider public especially, I presume, among DA members and supporters. On this I wholeheartedly agree and believe that Cardo & Davis have done the Party and the public a service in bringing this issue to our attention.

It's worth saying that the issue is both highly topical and supremely important - and one must add, very complex. This is not the place (and I am not the person) to go into the full history of the debate around classical liberalism with its emphasis on the individual, along with inalienable rights and responsibilities, as the foundation for a successful and decent society. I personally buy into its main thesis, but with caveats.

The caveats are important because it is these which saves the 'Liberal' from becoming just another ideological, secular-religious tribe possessed by ideas of doctrinal purity. In other words I would define myself as a 'liberal' with a small 'l', and it is from this perspective that I approach this debate.

The debate is highly topical for at least three further reasons. Firstly, this is the era of 'identity politics' especially in the West which had been thought to have outgrown such stone-age destructive impulses. No less a scholar than Francis Fukuyama in 'The End of History' (1989)  wrote

" What we may be witnessing is...the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

While Fukuyama might rightly claim 'liberal democracy' does not necessarily imply that group interests lose their potency or importance, it is ironic that the virulent form identity politics has taken in the West, and especially within the USA, poses a threat to the liberal democracy of its host societies. We do not yet know the outcome of these trends but I'm hopeful that the vast apparatus of norms, practices and institutions which support liberal democracy in the West will evolve and survive.

Secondly, a massive body of multi-disciplinary, scientific research has, over the past 3 decades or so, reached a level of sophistication that has direct relevance for understanding human affairs. Considering the scope of the topic there are few experts in all its dimensions which may partly account for its relatively small public impact. Yet within this remarkable body of work will be found many of the clues to our ills and discontents.

To offer a highly abbreviated (and somewhat jargon-heavy) summary , humankind is an adaptive, social species guided by a set of culturally tuned, built-in algorithms conditioning its responses to external challenges. These adaptive responses (cultural-political-technological) are subject both to chance and to Darwinian selection in terms of their fitness to environment. Since the selection environment is far too complex to map precisely we have to make our decisions and choices on a combination of intuition, rational analysis, current and historical information and the values (norms) which have proven themselves in practice.

The successful societies are those which have accumulated, invariably through painful trial and error, nimble high-information cultures with values which facilitate relatively peaceful, large-scale cooperation. At the present time these are best represented by the Western liberal democracies and the various institutions and norms which support them. The irony is that the same cultural norms and technological innovations which make most Western nations successful also hinders their ability to respond effectively (at least in the short term) to predation or parasitism by less successful social groups including nation-states.

Which brings us to South Africa. By virtue of our history South Africa comes with a laundry list of cleavage lines which involve race (in the folk meaning of the term), different cultures (ethnicities) including languages, and huge economic and social inequalities all embedded in historical narratives of conflict, marginalisation and oppression. What we are left with is a diverse, massively unequal population primed by history for tribal triggers.

Superimposed on this is the South African Constitution, explicitly committed to a restorative liberal democracy with its supportive institutions and commitment to a non-racial, national identity. If wholeheartedly adopted, the Constitution provides a powerful framework for the attainment of both social justice and the individual human values prized by the successful democracies globally.

Broadly speaking the South African population was willing to make this leap onto full democracy but over the last couple of decades the values of the Constitution have come under systematic attack from two chief quarters.

Firstly, corruption has flourished under the leadership of the ANC to the extent that the restorative intent of the Constitution has floundered on the incompetence and dereliction of duty by politically-appointed cadres and large scale looting of the national purse by the ruling party and its cronies.

And, secondly, there has been a deliberate re-racialisation of South African politics to disguise the incompetence and graft of the ruling party and to use the race card as an easy path to political power. This trend continues with Ramaphosa talking repeatedly of 'our people' instead of South Africans and the more blatant racism of the disgraced Zuma and the EFF. It is notable that the incendiary comments of these latter groups have gone unpunished while the deeply offensive but, relatively, harmless racism of Vicki Momberg and Penny Sparrow have elicited significant penalties.

It is argued that this retreat from the inclusive ideals of our Constitution was necessary, or at least inevitable, because of the entrenched but partly invisible privilege of whites (and males especially) through networks of social capital, superior education, habits of superiority, differential access to economic capital and so forth. Although this may be overstated by entrepreneurial politicians it is historically true and remains true even if in a somewhat attenuated form. It is further argued that excluded groups have the right to band together in order to obtain justice and equality.

In terms of this viewpoint, it is thus to be expected that the ANC, which arose as a liberatory movement in response to white domination, will be especially sensitive to the needs of blacks in the inclusive use of the term. The EFF and like groups should also simply be seen as more radical and unscrupulous examples of the same phenomenon. And so on with other pressure groups around gender and its many offshoots.

These are powerful arguments because they're at least partly true. Entrenched inequality has generally been reversed or lessened historically by the more-or-less violent rebellion of the excluded. It is in the nature of human politics for groups, either natural or ideological, to fight for the rights and privileges of its members. It is thus argued that the national Constitution, or indeed the DA constitution, are inadequate documents for redressing the serious imbalances of the past and either require amendment or judicious reinterpretation to allow justice to be done.

This is where accumulated wisdom and knowledge becomes important. The downside of group politics is that it ties into powerful evolved impulses in the human psyche which are not primarily designed for justice in the first instance: they were designed to capture and defend territory and deploy power. Thus tribal-think is as good at creating injustices and atrocities as in remedying them.

The issue of group or identity politics can thus be recast as an archetypal Yin and Yang problem: how do you recognise the inevitability and necessity of group-based political action while mitigating its destructive effects at the same time? Generally speaking it involves buffering the negative aspects of tribal-think with counter-values and institutions. The multitude of institutions which seek to regulate international relations were designed to reduce the atrocities and destruction perpetrated in pursuit of nationalist (group) agendas. Likewise our own Constitution sought to acknowledge and remedy severe historical injustices and inequalities but within a unified South African state buttressed by democratic institutions and norms and an overriding national identity.

Putting it another way identity politics is like a runaway train. Once the normative brakes fail it becomes ungovernable and destructive until the movement runs out of steam or encounters an immovable object. The DA has embodied the wisdom of our Constitution which was designed explicitly to pursue remedies to historical injustice within an ethos of individual rights so as to avoid a return to the racial foundations of Apartheid and Colonialism. It is in this context that Cardo and Davis's objection to the proposed DA constitutional amendments must be understood.

Specifically, by adopting the principle of a strict demographic representivity and by automatically assigning female members of the Party to a woman's network the so-called 'progressive' caucus is complicit (deliberately or carelessly) in undermining these core values of our Constitution. On a lesser note, the clause which states that 'every traditional custom' will be upheld and respected may also turn out to be a step too far.

In the short term the DA will lose the already shaky loyalty of its core constituency without reaping the rewards of a wider membership. The racist taunts will continue since the DA cannot outbid the ANC or EFF when it comes to racialised politics while, simultaneously, the key obstacle to a racialised national politics, namely, a vigorous unified DA, will be undermined. In the longer term South Africa will suffer, and ironically those groups who are the designated beneficiaries of such race-based politics will suffer the most.

I would not like to see this become the terrain for a zero-sum ideological struggle within the DA. This would be to fall into the trap of 'sacred thinking', where certain values become sacrosanct and thus impervious to argument, evidence and compromise. Once this happens the DA will implode to the immense satisfaction of those from all sides of the political spectrum itching for tribal battle or personal advancement.

The Party needs to demonstrate the capacity of being able to adhere to its liberal democratic values while clearly acknowledging the group dynamics which underlie our historical legacy. It is the ability to reconcile seemingly contradictory perspectives which marks out successful cultures and nations in the long-term.

Mike Berger