The racial question

Mike Berger writes on the DA's difficulty in challenging the ANC, despite far outperforming it in govt

In a previous article I dealt with racial identity in the traumatic events of South African history, the role it plays in shaping our current disastrous politics and the manner in which the ruling ANC Alliance (ANC) and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), have responded to the challenge it poses.


In brief, I argue here that the ANC has weaponised our historical trauma as a path to political power and elite enrichment while the DA has attempted to include low-profile redress of past wrongs within a broad programmer of nation building, including principles of fairness, non-racialism and constitutionalism.

South African democracy has three defining features which differ from normative Western democracy. Firstly, the difference between the two chief parties is immense. The ANC is extractive, exploitative, statist, factionalised and incompetent. In contrast, the DA is a remarkably capable organisation considering South African circumstances and history, with a liberal, socially responsible and non-racial orientation. Within any theory of rational choice democracy South Africa would be led nationally by the DA.

Secondly, the stakes in South Africa are high, no less than the distinct possibility of catastrophic State collapse within the next decade. It is already in a state of patchy State failure as reflected in its soaring rates of violent crime, domestic abuse, social and psychological pathology, unemployment and the absence of the basic amenities of a decent life for up to half our population.

Thirdly, South Africa has recently emerged from a century of segregationist and discriminatory politics culminating in 50 years of Apartheid with its panoply of humiliating and exclusionary laws and migrant labour. The damage wreaked by this phase of our conflicted history still resonates within the psyches of all South African and in the economic, educational and sociological domains of the South African collective. The quarter century of ANC rule since the demise of formal Apartheid has left intact many of the social and economic distortions of that era, simply replacing a white minority government with a black, politically-connected elite.

I argue that our political predicament in which a disastrous government is still in power after 25 years of failure, is attributable to the part played by race in our history and current demography. To this could be added the prominence of digital communications in the public square and current Western ideological fads around questions of identity. These factors have converged to provide the ANC with an easy path to political power.

The DA has responded to the minefield posed by racial politics by emphasising its non-racial policies and tangible achievements while avoiding, insofar as possible, undue reference to its on-going efforts to rectify racial inequalities at all levels. The question is whether this softly-softly approach will be sufficient to attract sufficient black voters away from the ANC to enable the DA to grasp the reins of power at the national level. The answer is for the purposes of this argument, is no.

There is little doubt that the DA’s record of honesty and achievement resonates within all ethnic and regional blocs in this country. But it has so far proven insufficient to decisively break the increasingly tenuous hold the ANC has on the loyalties of black voters. Only a couple of years remain before SA goes to the polls in national elections and it is essential for SA's future that the DA drastically increases its electoral footprint amongst black citizens.

To do that it will have to confront the ogre of racial identity politics and take on the ANC in its voter strongholds. Furthermore, the DA must identify those citizens who are not voting or are throwing away their votes. This requires an understanding of voter sociology and their motivations.

No sooner had I posted these thoughts in preliminary form on Solar Plexus than a twitter–media storm erupted around a Sunday Times article about an interview with DA leader John Steenhuisen in which he reportedly said the DA was open to working with the ANC come 2024 with the rider that Cyril Ramaphosa was still president. Maimane, erstwhile leader of the DA, took this occasion to accuse the DA of abandoning their national mission to rescue South Africa from ANC misrule. He claimed the DA was exclusively focussed on their base in the Western Cape and had abandoned black South Africans:

John and Helen do not care about fixing the problems of this nation. They care about the Western Cape and maintaining power there. They have given up on the national project and are now going back to the historic voters of the party and abandoning the rest. It’s obvious.

The actuality of regional, ethnic and even individual or organisational level initiatives was taken further in a recent article in Politicsweb (1 March) by RW Johnson. He favourably reviewed the ethnically-based involvement of Solidarity in community upliftment, points out the superiority of liberally (DA) governed Western Cape over the rest of the country and reviews the issues around Western Cape separatism.

These necessary and commendable, self-help activities are the outcome of abysmal ANC failure and corruption but, in the short and medium term at least, uncoordinated local initiatives cannot be an adequate substitute for a fully functional national government.

So, unless South Africa balkanises into separate polities, the task of constructing a capable state remains and, with that, the massive challenge of bridging multi-dimensional racial, ideological and class gaps.

Race and Identity

Race has a bad name in politics for good reason, but it is worth taking a step back to remember that identity, both group and personal, is absolutely basic to human functioning. The problem is that humans are constructed in such a way that the boundary between personal and group identity is easily blurred.

In the right circumstances – eg. historical trauma, personal stress, political (i.e. group) conflict, individual personality – the two identities, personal and group, can fuse.

Group identity (sense of group selfhood) is fluid in the sense that the specific form it takes is very contingent upon circumstance but, at the same time, generic identity formation (personal and group) is a fundamental default setting in the human psyche.

For example, when a mob forms, a significant number of individuals will have shed their individual (personal) identities to assume the collective identity of the mob. In other less acute circumstances a barely registered group identity may be triggered into salience by cues evoking status threat or group belonging or remembered collective injury and grievance.

Given these psychological realities, the richer a given political environment is in competing and previously traumatised group identities the more vulnerable that environment is likely to be to identity-based conflict. Furthermore, the advent of digital communications technology over the past few decades has substantially increased the likelihood of identity-based political conflict. And finally the political environment itself may either enhance or mitigate the emergence of identity conflict.

It is mitigated, for example, in situations in which a strong national identity overrides more particularistic, sub-national group identities or where a powerful external threat (human or otherwise) supervenes. But it is enhanced where there is a history of traumatic conflict, where substantial economic inequalities exist between groups and where all or part of the political (elite) leadership is invested in maintaining a powerful group narrative either as a political tool or as a feature of their own psyches.

It is evident from this brief overview that South Africa is exceptionally, maybe uniquely, vulnerable to race-based conflict, or at least political manipulation. Any objective identity spreadsheet in the SA context would be strongly lopsided in favour of enhancing factors.

The DA’s options

It is in this context that the DA made the strategic decision, following a poor performance at the last general election, to focus on integrity, delivery and the classical liberal principles of merit and personal responsibility as the basis of their appeal to the broader electorate. The Western Cape where the DA is in power serves as the main setting within which the DA is able to conveys its message of political salvation.

In the context of naive democratic theory, the competing national visions and performances of the DA and ANC would be evaluated and would guide party choice by the electorate. But, as we have seen, within the wide political landscape of SA such rational choice behaviour would have to be made against a complex array of competing motivations in which racial identity is a powerful factor.

In terms of political strategy the task of the DA is to keep its non-racial message sharp and clearly differentiated from race-infused ANC ineptitude, corruption and factionalism. On the other hand the DA is vulnerable to accusations of white supremacy, privilege and implicit racism.

The recent episode of mask-outrage against the eNCA and the journalist, Lindsay Dentlinger, is a classic example of such tactics in operation. Part of the furore around the non-event is intended to intimidate the news platform and its journalists and part to inflame group identity feelings within some ANC factions or voter base.

But such tactics only work in situations in which embittered forms of ethnic identity are readily evoked as a result of historical conflict or trauma as in the case of South Africa.

It is within these parameters that the DA must re-assess how it handles the race issue entering the final laps before the next general election. The task facing the DA is simple in theory but extremely difficult in practice. Let me list some dilemmas:

How does the DA publicly acknowledge and redress the toxic brunt of history experienced specifically (not exclusively) by black Africans without alienating voters from other ethnic groups?

How does it focus empowerment and affirmative aspects of its redress project on the black community without undermining its own message of non-discrimination and non-racialism?

Would such ethnicity-orientated redress simply stimulate victimhood psychology amongst the beneficiary (mainly black) group, thereby further entrenching ethnic competition and weakening the DA’s message of personal responsibility?

How will the DA avoid accusations of white paternalism and political expediency?

These traps are impossible to avoid completely. There will need to be various kinds of trade-offs, political, moral and operational. Is the effort worth the costs? The alternatives facing the DA are all painful: to lead a righteous and capable liberal democratic party to a second place finish or to go for the electoral jugular without sacrifice of core non-negotiables?

Inevitably, adopting a more overt and radical racial redress policy will require some exquisite fine-tuning at multiple operational levels and serious self-examination in term of core principles.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for the care and effort which has gone into the DA's political programme. But the question which must be faced is whether the political mindscape of South Africa is sufficiently receptive to such a message.

In its anxiety to remain true to its mission and principles (and to avoid being stigmatised as ANC lite) is the DA missing tactical adaptations which could bring electoral success without significant dilution of its core policies and non-negotiable political principles?

The longer the ANC remains in power wasting the energy and resources of the country on statist fantasies, remembered traumas and self-enrichment, the longer we are unable to deal with our economic and social decay and the real material ethnic inequalities which threaten the future sustainability of the country.

This article has been written to stimulate thought and debate on this key issue.

Mike Berger