DA's new federal head, Wilmot James: I will not be 'ceremonial'
The Democratic Alliance remains mired in the view that it’s a “white” party and seems to lack the ability to become a serious contender against the might of the ruling African National Congress. Can its new federal chairman help solve the problem?
The Daily Maverick finally caught up with Wilmot James, the new federal chairman of the DA, while he was having supper with his family after the party wrapped up its recent two-day conference. He spoke about his visions for the party’s – and South Africa’s – future and the changes he wants to help bring about.
James is one of South Africa’s most internationally prominent sociologists and, after just a couple of years as a DA member of parliament, has become the party’s new federal chairman, replacing the retiring Joe Seremane. Although something of a neophyte in electoral politics, James’ political pedigree actually reaches back through the Black Consciousness-inspired South African Students Organisation and the likes of Steve Biko when James was a student at the University of the Western Cape, and even earlier to the Trotskyite-flavoured the Non-European Unity Movement.
In his acceptance speech, James said politics had become a very personal theme very early in his life. “I have had my fair share of injustice. My family was removed not once but twice under the group areas system. I spent an eminently forgettable four days in the Bellville police station in August 1976 and three thankfully brief weeks at Victor Verster Prison under preventative security detention. My generation knows first-hand what it meant to have little rule of law, unconstrained government and pliant judges lacking in backbone.”
The Neum was a prominent feature of coloured political consciousness in the Cape until the late 1960s, and James confesses his tenure there owed something to his parents and their friends – politically active teachers opposed to the growing consolidation of National Party rule and apartheid. Putting on a sociology professor’s mien, James notes that a young person’s political allegiance in South Africa, the UK, the US or anywhere, most often comes first from his or her parents. He points to that truth as part of the reason why the DA still appears to be a party of whites, even as its leader, Helen Zille, asserts it has become the most racially mixed party in the country.
We spoke even as the likelihood of an alliance between the DA and the Independent Democrats looks increasingly possible. James admits the DA’s current leadership – putting himself aside for the moment – remains predominantly white, but he insists the party’s membership and its voter support are increasingly reflective of the full range of racial hues in the country. But, nonetheless, the leadership’s “whiteness” remains a reflection of the party’s history and evolution. These included the earlier merger with the New National Party.
James says the formal merger was unneeded - the DA would have won those votes anyway. But he wants to direct attention to an articulate, cogent segment now emerging in the party’s younger supporters; “a diverse orchestra” he calls it. But, no, this cohort is not in charge, he says. “It is still a work in progress”.
James admits that under Joe Seremane, the position of federal party chairman had been largely a ceremonial one. But, he says, “I don't intend it to be ceremonial. I want to do something different with my three deputies,” and with a youth wing that will be the leading edge “in extending the DA’s reach to the country’s black community by calibrating branch structures for black people”. James invites us to reflect in two years’ time to see how well he’s done with this.
But, the seemingly glacial pace of change in the DA still remains an issue. It is now 16 years after the beginning of democratic elections, and we’re still talking about this. How, exactly, is James going to change this?
He says the ID and DA will sharply contest the upcoming local elections and by 2014, the DA will have a new, battle-hardened slate of leaders. James says he wants to be able to present a first-class list for parliamentary elections featuring individuals from widely diverse backgrounds. Even so, the party list system of elections is a problem too. James says the DA is committed to a mixed electoral system such as the one proposed by the late Fredrick van Zyl Slabbert. James insists, “Accountability requires new political culture”, political maturity and experience.
Asked why the ANC still seems to be the default home for most of South Africa’s citizens, James points to the fact that the party has a core of leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma, whom the people still trust by virtue of past associations. The DA’s challenge is to make the connection between people’s actual interests and the party for which they vote - what a party actually delivers - rather than simply continuing party membership and a more generalised allegiance.
James points to the experience the DA had with a women’s group in Mitchell’s Plain in the Cape. They considered themselves ANC and Cope supporters, but felt the local ANC councillor was “useless”, so they said they would work and vote for the DA’s candidate in the by-election. But it remains problematic, at best, to go into some townships with a DA flag.
He argues that the next elections in 2014 can become one of those realigning elections when a major shift in party allegiances finally gels. “The DA is aiming to gain control – by coalition, perhaps – of the Northern Cape and Gauteng, and at the city level there are other possibilities. And then five years later, yet another chance for change. We are committed to a realignment.”
Asked what had drawn him to the DA, especially after a political childhood in Saso and Neum and then a career outside of politics, James said he had worked with a range of political leaders from various parties. He had served in Idasa’s leadership, had carried out two projects for Nelson Mandela's Presidential Office, had been an aide to Kader Asmal, and had been chairman of the department of home affairs’ immigration board. Along the way, sadly, James says he saw how the ANC’s political culture had become eroded. After his service with the Ford Foundation ended in 2008, he decided he wanted to enter public service in his own right and that “Helen Zille exemplified all the right values: honesty and integrity”. James says that underpinning his search for political values, he had been deeply motivated by a fundamental concern for justice, or what Martin Luther King Jr. had called the "long arc of justice”.
James admits he still has a strong affinity for the rigour of academic work and writing. His BA in sociology from UWC led to a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Wisconsin in the US for an MA and then a PhD and while he is not teaching, he has a book coming out shortly, entitled, “Nature’s Gifts: Why we are the way we are”, aimed at retraining and improving the background of biology teachers. The book encompasses 10 essays on different aspects of the human genome including a chapter on the how, what and why of skin colour. And then, towards the end of the year, he has a book on the social history of the grape, to be called “Mixed Bunch”. This latter volume will tackle the grape’s impact on the sociology and economy of the Western Cape in the way one could write about the cod and its impact on New England or the olive on the Mediterranean basin.
Asked what reading had influenced him in recent years, James points to Amartya Sen’s writing on the economics of justice, Jeffrey Sachs’ work on poverty and a recent biography of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky? Yes, “the book spoke to the line of continuity from czarist authoritarianism to communist rule and the absence of the rule of law and constitutionalism”. This experience offered a shock of recognition of the continuity from the apartheid bureaucracies until the present.
For inspiration from politicians, James says he spent some time as a speech writer for top politicians here and he is drawn by Barack Obama’s subtle, but effective combination of rhetoric and substance, and Winston Churchill’s inspirational style, as well as his use of witticisms.
Okay, he’s not the party’s head, let alone the head of the country, but if he could do one thing right now, what would it be? He would abolish those Setas (the sectoral employment and training authorities) and feed the money into training colleges instead – and he’d provide sufficient resources to the country’s universities to turn them into world-class centres of teaching and research.
James admits to being really focused on the importance and impact of education. “Quality education requires unrelenting, consistent and cumulative attention to the detail of planning. Education is essential for a people’s self-confidence. The ANC has wasted 16 years fiddling with our nation’s future with its misguided experimentation,” he said in his acceptance speech.
By J Brooks Spector
Photo of Mr James courtesy of DA.