Why the DA should reject the "diversity" amendment

Ghaleb Cachalia says the official opposition must avoid sliding into the ANC/EFF slipstream

The recent contributions to discussion around diversity in the run up to congress on the in the party has made me reflect on why I joined the DA.

I joined the DA because it is the only party that is championing our national constitution, a negotiated document that is applauded universally as pioneering and just.  Our federal constitution is evidence of this. 

Amongst other things, it stands against racial exclusion, corruption and collectivist policies.

We all have seen, in our country, the effects of the policies of a governing party that has no real regard for these principles. They have implemented policies that have done little to improve the lives of all South Africans and, just as Apartheid did in reverse, they have fostered the growth of a rent-seeking, racially skewed elite.

This led me to find a political home that reflected my beliefs, concerns and aspirations for all our people.

I found a home in a liberal party, that had an economic and social vision, grounded in the principles of freedom, fairness and opportunity, based on the upliftment of all people on the basis of their individuality and that guarded against the championing of groups.

The concept of fit for purpose is central to this because it focuses on getting the job done with the right people, regardless of their race, gender or other attributes. Sustainability is key, and in that lies the route to real fairness and opportunity.

This will create an organisation that evolves and gets the mix right over time – the composition of that mix should have, ideally, little to do with the unmet needs of groups. The focus needs to be on the strengths and potential of individuals. It must, and it will happen.

The historically skewed racial representation in the DA, mattered little, because I knew that as the party grew, we would, of necessity, redress this issue on the basis of the primacy of individualism, because we are driven by our values. I was comforted by the belief that this would be done in accordance with the constitution of the party and the country.

This is how organisations evolve responsibly. That they are underscored by the vision and values embedded in a guiding constitution is of paramount importance, and indeed any examination of the growth of diversity in our party will, over time, will bear testimony to this.

Amendment to constitution...

I was therefore concerned when I saw a proposed amendment to our party’s constitution that, if adopted, will ride roughshod over the fundamental principle that diversity be rooted in individualism rather than collectivism; that opens the door to collectivist customs that may trump the rights of individuals; and that seeks to replicate diversity – some might say, at all costs – in its own ranks.

This focus on identity and privilege flies in the face of liberalism and plays into the hands of ideas that are sadly growing globally, and that are championed by the seemingly odd bedfellows of the odious right and the loony left – from Trump to Malema. The centre cannot and should not, embrace this madness.

The ANC has embraced these policies in the establishment of racial and gender quotas, ill-considered BEE and procurement policies, and recently in the EFF-sponsored move to amend our national constitution to expropriate property without compensation.

We need to oppose these creeping and full-frontal assaults on liberty. They fuel a growing compensation culture which feeds misplaced entitlement and undermines social responsibility. 

This need not and should not exclude careful responses to important issues that demand redress.  Additionally, and importantly, responsible and tailored mentoring and training is key to ensuring that the best of our youth carry us forward, justly and sustainably.

Allow me, at this juncture, to locate these issues in an important historical context.

There is no doubt in my mind, as an historian who has studied South Africa, that the systematic dispossession of black people in our country was caused by a vigorous African economic boom – given birth to by the advent of economic opportunities and the demand for new consumer goods that the Europeans had exposed. This boom came to come an abrupt end between 1890 and 1913.

During this period three forces combined to destroy the the rural prosperity and economic dynamism black Africans had created in the previous fifty years. A telling example of the economic advancement of Africans is that during this period prosperous African farmers were donating money for the relief of poor English textile workers. Moreover, by 1882, around eight thousand black African farmers had bought land in Griqualand east alone and began to work on ninety thousand acres of land.

The three forces were, the driving out of business by European farmers of Africans who produced cheaper goods, the impoverishment of Africans to ensure the supply of cheap labour for the growing mining economy, and the actions of chiefs and other traditional African authorities, such as witch doctors, to prohibit all European ways, including new crops, tools such as plows and items of trade.

And then successive governments sought to thwart the impetus of Africans further to start businesses, become educated and make their way in the new European economy, via draconian political intervention.

No African was allowed to own property or start a business in the European part of the economy (87% of the land), and job reservation was introduced to prevent educated Africans from competing with Europeans.

So no black African was allowed to to be a bricklayer, boilermaker, assayer, brass finisher and more. No African could be employed as skilled worker in the mines and it is hardly a surprise that black Africans were largely uneducated. They were removed from benefiting economically from education, and the Bantu Education Act was promulgated.

Black South Africans were trapped in the traditional economy in the Homelands and this enabled the development of the white economy. At one important level, this what Blacks inherited in 1994.

I have gone into some detail purposely to explain my natural and intellectual empathy with the dispossessed. But I firmly believe that the only way out of this inherited morass and the social ills that accompany it, is to grow an open economy, and to accelerate access to it (and political structures) by all the economically disadvantaged, while assiduously protecting freedoms, not least of the individual.

The burning question is, how to respond to these important issues, given the context?

This would involve ongoing discussion and dispassionate interrogation before any constitutional amendments are even contemplated.

At an overarching level, it is incumbent on us to build a nation and that means pulling together, not apart. It means distancing ourselves from the self-serving elitism of the ANC that is couched in outmoded socialist rhetoric; it means separating ourselves from the racial populism of the EFF; it means stemming any slide – wittingly or unwittingly – into that dangerous and non-productive slip stream.

This is why we need to understand the language, forces and nature of the amendments that may open the door to actions that will retard the positive, principled and progressive measures that need to be taken to deal with these issues.

A close look at this amendment tabled to our constitution speaks to groups who demand the representation of diversity. Actually diversity here is a smokescreen; it’s really a journey that will cement quotas. It is a negative move and the current proposal to amend the DA’s constitution follows –whether by design or default– the quota-obsessed trajectory of the ANC.

Constitutional amendments are not made lightly and every word needs to be scrutinised for import, effect or agenda. On face value they may seem harmless, but often the result of incorporating these can and will change the essential values that underpin the party; values that exist protect against pitfalls, as we drive our country forward, fairly and inclusively.

I, for one, have never availed myself of any affirmative action policy. I felt that would have made me less than I am as an individual, and indeed, despite my status as historically disadvantaged, I have been the victim of the reverse discrimination – in both broader society and sadly, within our own party. But that is by the way, and more of an insight in my peculiarities, although it does speak to the differentiated access to lesser or greater opportunities by the broader basket of the dispossessed. It also highlights the divisive perils of a differentiated racial approach.

Like all policies, affirmative action has costs. It risks instilling excessive race-mindedness, stoking resentments, and potentially diverting attention from those whose needs may even be greater than those who typically stand to benefit from positive discrimination.

To focus instead, on socioeconomic status, is an effective and more morally and legally defensible way of achieving racial diversity.

If there is another way of getting to the same valued goal—real diversity—without legitimising race-based decision making, the alternative is to be favoured.

This also raises the question of how to address minorities. We would be remiss here if we were not the heed the wise words of Mark Lilla, an eminent liberal and professor of humanities at Columbia University, regardless of his race and provenance who says in his book "The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics" (Harper, 2017),

"there is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But the only way in a democracy to assist them meaningfully – and not just make empty gestures of recognition and 'celebration' – is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does the opposite and just reinforces the alt-right's picture of politics as a war of competing identity groups".

It’s not just about minorities, it’s about not singling any one group above another. We are in this together, as one nation, to build one future. I will always champion this. I will not be defined by my race, my gender, my sexual orientation, or my religious beliefs. I am an individual South African, an African, and a citizen of this world.

Accordingly, I encourage all DA members to reject the currently tabled amendment to our constitution. It will erode our liberalism that is at the heart of our policies to create a free, fair and prosperous nation for all; it will set us on a course that is in the end indistinguishable from the current ANC – the post-independence party that I left for those very reasons.

Ghaleb Cachalia, MP.