Race, the media & the DA

James Myburgh says the party is not without responsibility for the unhinged nature of much of our current debate

In a recent column for BusinessLive Gareth van Onselen argued that the Democratic Alliance was making a “fundamental error” by, implicitly or explicitly, communicating the message that the ANC’s current disastrous condition was abnormal, “the consequence of Jacob Zuma alone.” This was being done by the official opposition’s embrace of icons of the liberation movement, the message that things had gone rather well under Presidents Mandela and Mbeki, and appeals to the heroic and virtuous ANC of old.

While all this made sense on one level, given that the DA was trying to appeal to proud but disaffected ANC supporters, the unintended consequence was “that the DA is constantly and repeatedly telling voters that it believes the real ANC — a better, more ethical ANC — exists out there and the party just needs to find itself.” Should the ANC manage to elect a credible replacement as President next year, those supporters would likely flock back into the ruling party’s fold.


While this could no doubt happen the DA strategy has had other unintended consequences. One of these is, arguably, the disturbing shift of our public debate away from reasoned and non-racial norms. This trend was evidenced again this week by the controversy over a (black) Zimbabwean waiter at a restaurant in Cape Town who described two customers as “2 blacks” on a till-slip for the purposes of identification, rather than by a table number or some other characteristic. Apparently the waiter concerned had a history of using this method to describe patrons, other sets of customers being described as “six white guys” or “two blondes”.

An image of the till-slip was posted on social media where it proceeded to go viral and provoke much outrage. There were numerous press reports on this incident with The Huffington Post SA headlining its story: “Cape Town Restaurant Called Patrons '2 blacks' In A Stunning Instance Of Racism Being Alive And Well”.

On the face of it this reaction was somewhat odd given that South Africa is going on for two decades of statutory race classification under the ANC government. State institutions, companies, universities, sports teams, and so on, are all required to apply race classification and report race statistics to government. To take one example out of hundreds this is how the Land Bank reports on the racial composition of its staff: 

Unlike in the till-slip case this is state-directed race identification tied to a discriminatory purpose. The declared objective of the ANC government being to gradually weed out racial minority individuals from prominent positions until the ratio of minorities to majority here-there-and-everywhere equals that of the national population as a whole.

In response to this apparent disconnect Western Cape Premier Helen Zille commented on Twitter: “Why is it OK to racially classify ppl for jobs but not to identify ppl at a table by their race?” (For some reason she then deleted this comment.) This remark provoked yet another wave of indignation. The Daily Maverick journalist Ranjeni Munusamy responded: “Can’t believe you're asking this when racial imbalance in the economy is so glaring. Also, your attempt to normalise racism is so transparent.” She also denounced Zille for questioning “the need for racial redress in the economy.”

Zille was also lambasted by the media for her comment. Independent Online said she had been “called out”, The Citizen that she was in “hot water”, and the Mail & Guardian she had “upset the nation.”

This incident illustrated yet again how our racial discourse is spiralling off into some truly irrational places. One moment South Africans were being told that an African immigrant using race as a descriptor for an innocuous purpose was ineffably “racist”; the next that it was completely unacceptable to question government’s use of systematic race classification, “for how else are numeri clausi meant to be enforced!!!?”

There is a growing literature in the United States documenting the tendency of people to become more-extreme in their views when placed among the like-minded. By contrast being confronted with reasoned opposing views tends to moderate opinions. In a column in the New York Times recently Nicholas Kristof wrote about a study conducted by the Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein on how groupthink shaped federal judges when randomly assigned to three-judge panels.

“When liberal judges happened to be temporarily put on a panel with other liberals, they usually swung leftward. Conversely, conservative judges usually moved rightward when randomly grouped with other conservatives. It’s the judicial equivalent of a mob mentality. And if this happens to judges, imagine what happens to you and me. Sunstein, a liberal and a Democrat who worked in the Obama administration, concluded that the best judicial decisions arose from divided panels, where judges had to confront counterarguments.”

Though Zille ended being the target of abuse in the “case of the racist till-slip”, the DA certainly bears some responsibility for the unhinged character of our current racial debates. Several years ago the DA appears to have decided to cease seriously contesting the racial ideology of the ANC, presumably for fear of frightening off certain classes of black voters. It thus stopped articulating a clear non-racial liberal alternative, pointing out the destructive consequences of racial policies, or highlighting the injustices that have resulted for many individuals.

As a result already racially-minded politicians and intellectuals - of whom there are no shortage in this country - were no longer confronted with counterarguments from the Official Opposition. Partly as a result they have become more extreme in their beliefs and self-confident in advancing them. This has ended up greatly complicating the DA’s project of breaking into the black electorate.