The Star / 15 April 2013, 11:02am / Eusebius McKaiser
Shame. Poor Tony Leon. Last week started so well for the old liberal. He enjoyed great publicity ahead of the launch of his book, The Accidental Ambassador.
The launch itself, by all accounts, was a marketing success for this eloquent speaker and lyrical writer. But then came Saturday morning. Oh boy, was he in for an illiberal surprise. Just as well it happened after breakfast. An insult on an empty stomach might have been worse.
Leon was about to be airbrushed from his beloved party’s history in their attempt to re-imagine the past in a way that might appeal to black voters.
Zille and her inner circle are doing so, however, at the cost of not embracing complete truths, and taking the interesting risk of alienating white men.
In sunny Cape Town, an excited Leon woke up very early, and shared his morning plans on Twitter: “Now off to do something I haven’t done for many years: give a speech to DA Cape Town Metro. Doubtless many old faces and even more new ones.”
No doubt he thought he was giving back. Why not? Surely his party values him? Surely they want to know his strategic thoughts ahead of the 2014 election? Surely they think he could “energise” the party hacks, and newbies alike, with an infectious speech, still? Surely he could, like Bill Clinton did for Barack Obama during his re-election effort, deliver a great speech ahead of the 2014 elections to boost the DA’s electoral campaign? Or so Leon would have thought.
Little did he know what the party really thinks of white men of yesteryear. The answer was in a speech being delivered in wintry Alexandra in Joburg at the same time. Zille told the country the story of the history of the DA that we are not aware of.
The main hero is Helen Suzman, a brilliant South African indeed, who opposed the racist National Party tirelessly for some 13 years in Parliament on a range of issues to do with substantive equality for black South Africans. So far, so good.
But then, almost comically, we are hurried along to hear stories about present-day DA heroes, like a storyteller ripping the middle chapters out of the book. Why the rush? Zille goes from Suzman straight to palatable DA leaders such as Patricia de Lille, Joe Seremane, Wilmot James, Nosimo Balindlela, Basil Kivedo and herself.
Where have all the white men gone? Hawu! White men are DA heroes too. No? Tony Leon, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Colin Eglin, Zach De Beer and many others did much more to build the infrastructure that is the modern day DA than someone like Balindlela who joined the party two seconds ago. So why is the DA dishonest about its history?
Simple, actually: another desperate attempt to find a quick way into the hearts of black voters instead of focusing on building black heroes, borne of the new South Africa, over time.
There is also something politically pernicious about telling partial truths about your history. If you only choose the nicest bits, then you send the message to the very voters you are trying to court that you are as manipulative as the buggers currently running government. That is how distrustful government starts.
If the DA is not comfortable with the whole truth about its own party history, then it raises the question of whether the party has the moral courage and leadership depth to tackle bigger uncomfortable truths about our society. I wonder? What else will the DA want to sweep under the carpet?
Discussions about racism perhaps? It really is a serious blunder to casually toss aside that which is uncomfortable.
There is also a tactical gamble here. Is Zille smart to take a chance on p***ing off white men?
The thinking, I guess, is that white politicians who see themselves as progressive do not have a choice but to remain with her. They cannot join the Freedom Front Plus because that, well, will make them feel and look horribly anti-new South Africa and stuff. (No offence but the FF+ is not exactly rainbow cool.)
Many do not want to leave politics because not all of them, contrary to popular belief, are wealthy enough to opt out of party and government work. Many simply love politics.
So Zille’s risk calculus is that these white men will just have to toughen up.
What she is doing is good for growing the party into the obvious untapped demographic - that of hungry, unemployed, gatvol black South Africa.
But Zille should be careful. White men still wield huge economic and social power.
Some might well leave, as strategist Ryan Coetzee did.
Zille is therefore in danger of alienating some loyal whites while still not yet capturing the hearts and minds of doubting black voters. Oh dear. What to do?
- Eusebius McKaiser is the author of best-selling A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays about race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics. - The Star