Should the DA choose its leader based on race?

Gabriel Crouse says the opposition should avoid backsliding into pigment politics

Should the DA choose its leader based on race?

31 March 2023

The DA is on the cusp of a leadership election, and Sandton councillor Martin Williams has argued that it must choose former Joburg Mayor Mpho Phalatse to lead that party, because, inter alia, she is black (“Phalatse is SA’s best hope for a government that gets things done”, 29 March). Is this a good idea?

Three points should be noted upfront. First, I serve the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), which supported non-racialism long before any existing political party. It should come as no surprise that my ultimate answer will be, no, racial profiling is no good.

Second, I have no argument about who should win between Phalatse and current DA leader John Steenhuisen. Councillor Williams concisely demonstrated Phalatse's appeal. She hung up her scrubs to campaign for the DA in Alexandra, served as a capable mayoral committee member in Joburg for years, and ran the continent's financial capital as mayor where she maintained grace under fire.

No one, least of all Williams, is saying that Phalatse should be elected simply because she is black. That would be slander. Phalatse is a hugely impressive candidate regardless of race.

Third, I empathise with Williams. I was studying in the US during the Obama-McCain election and whenever asked who I would vote for (if I could) I always answered Obama, for three reasons, one of which was his race. I wanted to see a black US president.

Most left-wing Americans I came across said they voted for Obama regardless of his race, but celebrated the “first black president”, qua race, upon his election. Others (like me) said that was absurd. If you celebrated his race after the fact, then you should have supported him beforehand on the same basis.

The tension between those ideas was obvious in American politics, but universal in nature. Should you grab every bonus you see? Or does it make sense to think of some bonuses as nice to have but not to aim for?

At a universal level political scientists like Princeton professor Philip Pettit call things that are nice to have but not to aim for subjects of “teleological paradox”. Spontaneity is nice to have but impossible to aim for, like luck. Virtue may be good to have but hard to aim for. Many people say of love and happiness that you should be glad to have them, but aiming for them will backfire, aim for health and productivity instead and let the best things in life come as a byproduct.

In politics, however, the US debate was settled, in a sense, the other way. Hillary Clinton launched her campaign with a speech that promised “I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the US!” and she kept up the gender clarion call from there. “The future is female.”

And then, surprise, Clinton lost. To her horror most white women voted for Trump. The best analysts on the left and right agreed that Clinton lost the 2016 election largely by insulting voters. Counting on the woman card was probably the stupidest insult of all.

This is just an illustration (of historic magnitude) of why I changed my mind and came to accept that some things are nice-to-have but bad-to-grab. Those Democrats who said people should vote regardless of race, but celebrated the entry of a black man into the White House in retrospect, were on to something wiser, and more winning, than I realised as a teen. British Conservative supporters of Rishi Sunak, and Scottish National Party supporters of Humza Yousaf have shown this again and again.

Studying “statistical discrimination” in the US gave me a specific picture of the way the teleological paradox applies to racial shortcuts of the kind Williams endorsed in policing and business.

Statistical discrimination is not only illiberal, but also ultimately self-harming. Racial shortcuts in policing might have short-run benefits but they erode trust in the criminal justice system, which ultimately makes it harder for cops to do their jobs. Racial shortcuts in hiring or lending pervert markets in ways that either lead to net losses or workarounds that out-compete statistical discriminators.

Racial profiling at work, or in policing, is like using heroin to get happy. Any benefit is temporary, diminishing, and lands you back on a lower low. It is also wrong in itself.

Racial shortcuts in politics are self-destructive primarily because they insult voters. Williams wrote: “Given South Africa's demographics, the DA will not achieve more than 25% of the vote when led by a white man. Harsh truth.”

That is a stunning insult to the average South African voter. Factor in Williams' party membership and the logical implication of his declamation is that the average South African would rather spite a white than live in the best-governed version this country can be.

It is also fallacious. We all know there are racists of all sorts in this country today, but most South Africans just are not that symbolically committed to cutting their own nose to spite any race. Last year the IRR commissioned an independently conducted opinion survey, with all the usual caveats about such polls including a roughly 5% margin of error, which asked: “Do you believe that South African sports teams should be selected only on merit and ability and not by racial quotas?”

A full 90% of respondents, including 90% of blacks, said “yes”.

Those are predominantly symbolic jobs. Asked about all job appointments, including the practical ones, roughly 75% said they should be made on merit, with a majority within that meritocratic preference group preferring access to special training for previously disadvantaged people.

The DA offers, at least on paper, the kind of pro-merit employment policies that this supermajority of South Africans prefer. The ANC, by contrast, has opted for what Employment Minister Thulas Nxesi calls “more aggressive” race laws amounting to Dis-Chem-style moratoria in the private sector through the Employment Equity Amendment Bill.

Why would the DA go ANC-lite by promoting non-racialism outside the party while backsliding into pigment politics inhouse?

I would have hoped that Phalatse would sharply distance herself from Williams. She is an impressive candidate who is only harmed by the insulting, false notion that the DA's biggest problem is a racist electorate. Distancing herself from Williams would demonstrate the kind of self-confidence that the best leaders exhibit.

Crouse is Head of Campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations

* This article was offered to, but declined by, The Citizen