The DA and the racial temptation

Jan-Jan Joubert says the party must be careful not to betray its principles, in a rush for votes

Seventeen years after embarking on the journey to become a non-racial democracy, race remains the most problematic issue in South Africa. Obviously, this is an inherent contradiction, and hardly surprising given the country's history of colonialism and apartheid, which bequeathed us a potentially toxic overlap between race and class.

Grappling with the contradiction between non-racialism and the reality of race-consciousness is proving to be a challenge to the country's biggest opposition party, the DA. How it handles the issue could be critical to its future.

The DA is descended from parties committed to non-racialism, and it professes to remain true to that heritage. Would such a claim still hold water today?

Of late, there has been much focus in the media on the racial composition of DA structures. Instead of merely stating that in the DA people are judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character, some DA luminaries have produced very discomforting replies.

These recent developments follow on statements from on-high in the party regarding the race of the next DA leader, and an ever stronger focus on the racial composition of a variety of DA structures.

All of this stems from a combination of two views strongly held (if not loudly articulated) in certain circles of the party: firstly, that the ANC is governing South Africa so badly and corruptly that DA growth is a moral imperative, in order to rid the country of poor governance; and, secondly, that the DA cannot extend its support among black voters without the election of more, and more visible, black leaders.

I would argue that both the causal relationship between these two assumptions and the validity of the second must be challenged; and that, even if they were found to be valid, to sell out the principle of non-racialism would be to betray the very essence of the liberal tradition with which the DA has been entrusted.

That is just too high a price to pay for the loyalty of those individuals who cannot rise above a desire to be led by people who look like themselves. Maybe such racially driven voters belong in the more race-oriented parties, like the ANC and the Freedom Front Plus. One cannot be everything to everybody. If one is going to alienate those who advocate racial preferencing (even if they show their innermost beliefs by referring to the failure to succumb to such profiling as "colour blindness"), then perhaps there comes a time when must say, with some sadness but with fortitude, "so be it".

Anyway, it does not follow that the racial composition of any political party's leadership has produced an upward curve in black voter support. The PAC, IFP, ACDP, AZAPO, UCDP and most recently Cope are cases in point.

The growing DA brand is premised on voters associating it with non-racialism and clean governance. I would argue that these have morphed in the sense that racial preferencing corrupts any truly democratic outcome, and is at odds with a party professing to judge people by the content of their character. To quote US Chief Justice John Roberts: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race".

The DA has worked very hard at inculcating the values of non-racialism amongst its members and supporters. This has attracted some notable supporters, to the extent that its two most impressive leaders in Parliament today are undoubtedly National Chairperson Dr Wilmot James and National Spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko. This has nothing to do with their race, and everything to do with their ability. Liberal belief would hold that this is unsurprising.

They are not exceptions. A host of truly impressive young DA leaders of all races - black, Coloured, Indian and, yes, white - have come to the fore without the aid of racial preferencing. Names like Makashule Gana, Kameel Premhid, Cilliers Brink and Mbali Ntuli, to name a few, jump to mind immediately.

If one drinks from the poisoned chalice of racially preferencing prospective leaders, it would be madness to believe one would not end up suffering from the ills afflicting everybody else who has drunk from that cup.

The tenor of the current discourse on the racial composition of leadership within the DA has, over the past few weeks, spilled over into the public domain on at least two occasions with both being reported on in leading newspapers.

In a contest in the Gauteng South region, newspaper reports attributed racially based statements to DA MPL Khume Ramulifho, whereas Coloured members of the DA caucus in the City of Cape Town were reportedly playing the race card in an attempt to advance the chances of city councillor Dennis Joseph filling the vacancy in the National Council of Provinces opened by the death of DA MP Theo Beyleveldt.

These conflicts cannot be said to have had much effect, so far. Both candidates (and their opponents) are capable and neither contest has been decided, so the impact of these two cases is currently negligible. They are, however, important warning signs of the dangers inherent in opening the Pandora's box of racial preferencing. The race card can spread poison within any political grouping.

Further dangers are to reduce the image of successful candidates of colour to quota players, and of relaying a message to white candidates that their expectations should be lower than that of their colleagues.

No-one said addressing the racial legacy of the past will be easy. Even if professing and living non-racialism were to mean fewer potential black votes (and that, certainly, is not a given), it might serve the DA well to remember the example of Helen Suzman, and the importance of adhering to principle, even if it is not the natural choice of the electorate.

Jan-Jan Joubert is political editor of Beeld.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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