DA leader Mmusi Maimane was surely hoping for an easier time of things in Parliament this year after last years Dianne Kohler Barnard racist tweet debacle. But his preacher-like speech in response to the racism issue over Penny Sparrows racist tweet and Gareth Cliffs supportive gaffe has seen him come in for some ridicule and harsh criticism. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

‘Am I a racist?’ is a question DA followers ask, writes Craig Dodds.

One swallow may not a summer make, but a Sparrow can unleash a winter of discontent – even in the midst of a heatwave.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane must have been hoping that by the time Parliament reopened and the noise that will inevitably accompany the president’s State of the Nation Address had died down, his party’s late-December announcement that MP Dianne Kohler Barnard had been reinstated on appeal would have slipped from public notice.

Read: DA caucus chairwoman in firing line

But the Penny Sparrow/Chris Hart furore that erupted as the new year squinted in the dawn has changed the game and suddenly the ubiquitous racial backbeat has launched into a pulsating riff that won’t be silenced.

An election season that might have centred on the economy and the myriad frustrations of ordinary South Africans must now be fought, also, on the question of racism.

EFF leader Julius Malema has given his diagnosis of the problem, as did IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi this week.

Cue an “important speech on race and identity” – as it was touted by the DA – delivered by Maimane at the Apartheid Museum in Joburg on Tuesday.

He has been ridiculed, not least by the ANC, for the preacher’s fervour with which he delivered the speech, his transparent attempts to appropriate the legacy of Mandela and the apparently coincidental collapse of Twitter around the time he was making it.

But in fairness he used a language and conception of racism never deployed by his party before, and the speech, if translated into policy, represents a significant shift for the DA.

Read: ANC blasts Maimane anti-racism “sham”

He asked, for example, why some of his black compatriots considered his marriage to a white woman to be remarkable, as though whiteness were, in itself, a measure of value.

He derided the furtive prejudice of “people who talk to each other around the braai as if they were still living in the 1970s.”

Read: Maimane to start dialogue on race

None of these insights would have come as a shock to black South Africans, while the majority of whites, though some might protest, would also recognise their truth.

But no DA leader has gone this far before in confronting assumptions of superiority that plague many of its white supporters, nor suggested “if you’re a racist and you are thinking of voting for the DA, please don’t”.

Of course few racists conceive of themselves as such so the admonition will probably not cost the DA significant numbers of votes, but it would have unsettled at least a few firm supporters who must now ask themselves the awkward question, “Am I a racist?”

Hitherto the DA has relied on the view, ironically espoused by President Jacob Zuma recently, that racism was the preserve of isolated individuals.

 This is a major departure for the DA from the laissez-faire “open opportunity society” approach to transformation the party has taken thus far, because a recognition that racialised inequality has a structural dimension demands an interventionist response.

 It’s a recognition that the market, even if freed from legally institutionalised discrimination, will not, on its own, distribute opportunity evenly while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a racialised elite.

That elite will continue to reproduce itself by virtue of its inherited advantages – quality education and social and material capital.

 Again, this is hardly news to people who’ve been knocking on the door in vain for the past 20 years but it’s a fairly long way from the free market fundamentalism of the early DA.

And Maimane was alive to the need for meaningful instruments for redress, promising to produce “a focused plan to overcome the structural inequalities that continue to divide us”.

“At its heart is the recognition that the majority of black South Africans remain locked out of opportunity,” he said.

“The policy identifies the key obstacles to redressing this inequality, including: our unequal education system, skewed patterns of land ownership and uneven access to justice.”

He also promised to set targets for the party structures to ensure by 2019 they “reflect the diversity of our complex society”, though he added this would not involve the setting of “dehumanising quotas”.

It’s not clear how he will square this particular circle but even if it lacks substance it’s an endorsement of affirmative action and black economic empowerment which the party had been hesitant to commit to, feeding the impression it fully supported change as long as there was no danger of it actually happening.

This is a different DA from the party of Tony Leon or even Helen Suzman.

Maimane must have calculated that the ANC under Jacob Zuma had vacated the terrain once the exclusive property of the governing party and it was now available to his.

Malema offered a typically more direct analysis of the question, “Why do white people despise blacks?” – the heading of his opinion piece published recently in the Sunday Times.

The answer, he wrote, was to be found in “the structural organisation of black lives, the material conditions that have been made exclusive to black people”.

“What colonisation and apartheid did was to make poverty, hunger, undereducation, landlessness and cheap labour part of the exclusive identity of black people,” Malema said.

Whites inevitably harboured an assumption of superiority because “their lived experience as a collective is to be served by blacks”.

Dismantling this assumption necessarily required the undoing of structural inequality.

“Economic freedom is the only answer to the transformation of the condition upon which white supremacy rests,” Malema wrote.

Once black people had attained “economic freedom”, white people would “lack the basis to despise us”.

No amount of dialogue, as proposed by Maimane, nor even the criminalisation of racism, as touted by the ANC, would eradicate racism without this condition being met.

Opposed to both Maimane and Malema’s understanding that racism has a structural dimension – even if it leads them to different conclusions – is Buthelezi’s old-style liberal view that people are essentially different and should all just learn to get along.

Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday, Buthelezi argued that the surge in racist episodes was a result of leadership failure, more than anything else.

“It is simply that political leaders are not fulfilling the responsibility they carry,” he said.

“They are not empowering South Africans, they are not promoting unity, and they are encouraging dependence on the state. The moral compass has long been lost, and many political leaders have no idea where true north lies,” Buthelezi said, adding he had warned race would become “our next national question”.

“I remember warning right from the start of our democracy that we should see our diverse nation as a salad, rather than trying to reduce all the ingredients into one flavour of soup. Just as it was irresponsible then for leaders to ignore people’s differences, it is irresponsible now for leaders to capitalise on them, opening up social divisions,” Buthelezi said.

If racism and how to eradicate it is the question, voters can choose among the parties that have spoken on the subject recently depending on, first, whether they believe it is a function of inequality requiring some form of economic transformation (ANC, DA, EFF) or is more a question of inherent differences that need to be accepted, with the help of better leadership (IFP).

Among the first three, the choice is between promised faster progress towards economic transformation, along with legislation to criminalise racism (ANC), an acceptance that some form of redress and affirmative action is required, along with a national dialogue on the subject (DA), or the immediate redistribution of wealth which will, on its own, kill the tumour (EFF)

.Political Bureau