Tone-deafness claim a blindfold around the brain

Michael Cardo dissects a common criticism of the Democratic Alliance

Lourensa Eckard acknowledges that the Democratic Alliance (DA), and in particular its Federal Council Chairperson Helen Zille, are held to a double standard by the media.

The DA would be crucified if it protected and defended a party office-bearer accused of child rape as the ANC did in Mpumalanga. If a DA leader ever threatened the police in the manner EFF Julius Malema did, his or her political career would be destroyed in a flash.

Yet, having conceded this hypocrisy, Eckard proceeds to blame the DA’s recent difficulties on its own “tone-deafness”. The party, she writes, is so focused on policy that it is blind to how that policy is packaged and communicated. The upshot is that while the DA’s decision to abandon race as a proxy for advantage – taken at its policy conference in September – appears sensible on paper, in reality the move was “tone-deaf”.

“Tone-deaf” is simultaneously the most overused and meaningless adjective employed by commentators writing about politics today. No other epithet manages to combine the qualities of authorial dismissiveness and sanctimony quite as well, while being of such little analytical value.

The expression is a facile slur. It is one of those words that the historian Robert Conquest would have called a “brain blindfold”, “mind blocker” and “thought extinguisher”. Allegations of “tone-deafness” are easy to make but hard to rebut. After all, the perception of tone is entirely subjective. Tone is in the ear of the beholder.

The biggest problem with the evidence-free assertion of “tone-deafness”, however, is that it simplifies the causes of complex phenomena. It obscures understanding and stifles debate about real issues.

Eckard provides no evidence for her arguments. She makes the unsubstantiated claim that white Afrikaans-speaking voters began withdrawing their support from the DA because of the “damage caused” by Zille’s tweet in March 2017 about the legacy of colonialism. In fact, many of those voters were turned off by the party’s clumsy handling of the issue and its shabby treatment of Zille.

Between 2016 and 2019, the DA took its white Afrikaans electorate for granted. Various disputes over race issues, from the then party leader’s tweets about Ashwin Willemse and “white privilege” to the party’s handling of the Schweizer-Reneke controversy to race-based redress policy, all served to alienate and disillusion many of the DA’s core voters. In September 2017, Hermann Giliomee provided a good-evidence based analysis of this nascent trend in an article entitled “DA versaak Afrikaanse kiesers”. Zille’s tweet didn’t feature.

“Is the accuser always holy now?” asked one of Arthur Miller’s protagonists in The Crucible. One might well ask the same question of anyone levelling the accusation of “tone-deafness”. For whatever feelings of moral superiority the charge may confer upon the accuser, and however impossible it may be for the accused to prove their innocence, the accusation itself is a distraction. It is, to use another of Conquest’s aphorisms, a “mind mist”. Repeat it often enough and a thick layer of fog accumulates over the truth.

The truth is that South Africa is in a mess socio-economically, partly due to the legacy of apartheid, but significantly, too, due to the ANC’s continued recourse to racial interventionism by the state.

The past 26 years of ANC misrule have compounded our problems exponentially because corruption, state capture and the destruction of state capacity through cadre deployment have all been permitted to take root in the name of race-based redress.

The result is growing economic exclusion and social injustice. We are further removed now from the non-racial society envisioned in our Constitution than we were when it was adopted in 1996.

Let us take just one example. The ANC’s policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has singularly failed to promote economic inclusion or a fairer society. More black people are excluded from the economy now than when BEE was enacted in 2003. BEE is a form of legalised larceny for the politically connected elite masquerading as economic justice for the previously disadvantaged.

If you want to promote economic justice, it makes sense to target material disadvantage rather than race. Otherwise you are simply going to empower the same narrow band of affluent cronies, united by their skin colour and political affiliation, over and over again. That is how you entrench racial elites and widen class inequalities.

It is far wiser to focus on those who continue to suffer – and suffer most – the consequences of past discrimination and exclusion. In other words, the over 30 million South Africans who live below the poverty line. That is what the DA’s economic justice policy does.

Our policy resists the impulse to classify people by race, which we know has had disastrous consequences historically, and for which there exists neither scientific nor constitutional basis. And it empowers the poor, which is good for social cohesion.

Of course, politics is about persuasion and voters need to be persuaded – both rationally and emotionally – by the DA’s offer. Eckard is correct to suggest that a party shouldn’t blame voters or journalists if its platform fails to convince the electorate. As the erstwhile British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Never complain, never explain”.

Yet the fact of the matter is that it’s tough for the DA to land its offer when the media applies double standards to different parties. The commentariat is as susceptible to a herd mentality as any other in-group. When lazy descriptors like “tone-deaf” are substituted for substantive analysis, and repeated ad nauseam, it becomes harder to see through the fog.

When the mist rises, the clear choice facing voters is this. They can choose the DA; a constitutionalist, non-racial party committed to a social market economy and a capable state, with a track record of delivery and a plan to promote economic inclusion. Or they can choose the ANC; a corrupt, racial nationalist party committed to state control of the economy and cadre deployment, with a track record of economic destruction and elite enrichment posing as redress.

The DA will continue to present that choice to voters, and try to win their hearts and minds, regardless of the commentariat’s mutually reinforcing objections about “tone-deafness”.

This article first appeared in Beeld / Die Burger.