To ensure its future, the DA must move out of the suburbs and reach the margins of South Africa, writes Marianne Merten.
Cape Town - The unasked question in the blowout over DA MPs’ initial support for the race-defined employment equity amendments and their subsequent flip-flop is this: have the DA and its leader, Helen Zille, travelled as far as they can go on their political journey?
Under Zille’s astute political guidance, the DA has grown into a political animal that today bears little resemblance to its predecessor, the Democratic Party (DP), easily described as a collection of true-blue white liberals, or even the DA at its inception in mid-2000 following the marriage to the post-1994 reincarnation of the National Party.
Young, energetic black African leaders have emerged in its executive ranks, and at its national congress last year the rank-and-file was, well, diverse. Much work has gone into repositioning, or re-branding, the DA as a party for all South Africans, rather than one representing white interests, to enable it to make inroads among black voters and make the vital push from opposition benches on to the political centre stage.
Like her or not, Zille has to be given credit for this.
But in bringing together diverse people and galvanising support, no matter how tiny, in townships and rural areas, the DA is having to come to ideological terms with the lived reality of the majority of South Africans for whom race remains central. The impact of apartheid lingers two decades into democracy: in the unemployment statistics, in the poor quality of life for black children under the age of five, in housing which puts black communities on the margins of economic activity, and more.
“Is the DA essentially a party of the suburbs and invites black members to join its suburban values? Or is it going to be a party which speaks to the values of the majority?” wondered Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. “This is a divided society which, if they (the DA) did not have to face it before, now they have to deal with.”
This weekend’s so-called policy conference is crucial. Will the party project falter over fuzzy rhetoric of “economic inclusion” and “diversity empowerment” to achieve redress and reconciliation in an opportunity society for all? Will the DA whitewash South Africa’s legislated apartheid race discrimination, and its continuing impact on today’s inequality and poverty, through vague references to “disadvantage” and “unfair discrimination”? Will the DA simply put its trust in big business, which on the back of a plethora of incentives, it believes would create opportunities for all for work, education and entrepreneurship in a historical vacuum?
“It doesn’t matter whether you wish race away. It is just a matter of reality,” says political analyst Ebrahim Fakir. “There’s history you can’t wish away. You have to acknowledge race as a social cleavage. Policy may be beyond racial language, but will have a racial effect... given the sheer numbers.”
Political analyst Daniel Silke says within the liberal ethos, it would be possible to include race as part of a definition of disadvantaged South Africans as there is an overlap, but it’s up to the DA to offer policies “consistent with its non-racialism without being blinded to the consequences of apartheid”.
The devil will be in the detail.
Claiming that the current fight is about the Employment Equity Amendment Bill is part of the smoke-and-mirrors game that has seen the resuscitation of a two-year-old battle over the post for DA parliamentary leader between those of the liberal persuasion and new blood amid a new sub-plot of personality clashes. It is about how the DA today relates to race, given the South African liberal tradition’s blind spot on this.
The reality is, Zille crumbled to outside pressure from liberals of a certain ilk: former DP and DA leader Tony Leon, who opposed the original 1998 Employment Equity law as a “pernicious piece of social engineering”, Politicsweb editor James Myburgh, RW Johnson and the South African Institute of Race Relations.
Zille did not stand up to criticism, but flew into caucus that Thursday two weeks ago to castigate her parliamentary team and, in issuing a public apology soon afterwards, delivered a snotklap for her MPs.
Ironically, it appears the pro-business DA is out of step: organised business participated in consultations on this Bill and dismissed Zille’s criticism that it was draconian and that it would enforce rigid racial quotas, Business Day reported.
Let’s remember the fallout between liberal stalwart Helen Suzman and Leon over the political marriage with the New National Party, a year after the DP fought the 1999 election under the motto “fight back”, widely interpreted as “fight black”.
Leon took it on the chin, Suzman maintained she remained a member. And the DA learnt to incorporate Nat traditions of handing out free T-shirts and caps and goema music into its institutional culture, extending this in the 2011 municipal poll to appropriating ANC icons, symbols and songs. Thus at its 2012 national congress the song was “Helen Zille, my president” in an adaptation of the song usually sung for ANC president Jacob Zuma.
But this dress-up hasn’t solved the DA’s dilemma on race.
“The inconvenient truth is that South African liberalism, despite the opposition of some liberals to institutionalised racism, has never succeeded to fully extricate itself from white racism,” political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi wrote in his Business Day column this week.
“In fact, its paternalism may be the most pernicious form of racism since it pretends to know and understand the black mind and condition better than black people themselves.”
Amid talk of olive branches and sacrifices in the days before this weekend’s policy gathering, the DA must search for answers that straddle its ideological demands with the country’s historical legacy while also placating not only those within, but also the forces from outside.
How this unfolds will determine whether the DA can continue its political travels without landing in the wilderness.
* Marianne Merten is the Cape Argus’s senior political writer.