Analysis: Just how liberal is the DA?

By Osiame Molefe 8 November 2011

The short answer is: still very liberal. The longer answer is Shakespearian: What is in a name? Would that which we call a “liberal” be just as free by any other name? OSIAME MOLEFE explores this, steering clear of any further mutilation of the great English playwright.

“If we lived in a stable and homogenous society, with a large middle-class and a history that had not been characterised by racial exclusion and dispossession, a classic liberal agenda might suffice. But this is not the case,” wrote the DA’s newly elected parliamentary caucus chairman Wilmot James in a Sunday Times op-ed piece on Sunday.

James emphasised that the liberal agenda in the country needed to take into account context specific to South Africa, and the liberal ideology’s more recent global narrative of social justice and development. His use of “might” also suggests that, even without the country’s specific characteristics, he thinks the classic liberal agenda is an ill fit for South Africa.

Responding to RW Johnson’s two-part series accusing the DA of betraying its liberal roots, James argued that the liberal tradition in South Africa has not been homogenous as there were elements within the Progressive Party, the DA’s forebear, who believed in race-based redress and state intervention in the economy.

Without saying it in as many words, James described the DA as espousing in the main a social liberalism outlook. Just how many within his party agree with him is unknown and, by his own admission, there exist those who would disagree. But James’ view explains in part why the Independent Democrats, social democrats in origin, saw no contradiction in closing up shop and throwing in their lot with the DA.

Some ID members have further suggested that social liberalism, which they say runs deep within the DA’s on-the-ground work, will continue to emerge as the party’s overriding ideology.

The recent push by the party to have domestic workers covered by the Compensation Fund is one such example, despite the political posturing that may have been inherent therein. Another, perhaps more complex, example is its support for the Youth Wage Subsidy. At the same time though, illuminating the somewhat confusing ideological space in which the DA finds itself, the party often speaks out against the constitutional protection of labour rights, which James has previously suggested might be a flaw in the Constitution.

But as much as there may be a liberal history in the South African political landscape, the DA, in its current incarnation, is as relatively new to the scene as its leader in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, is to politics. Remarkable achievements in the interim aside, this means the party is still trying to find its ideological feet.

At times, it will dance to the ANC’s tunes as it did launching its manifesto in Kliptown, and other times it will take the same policy positions and argue that it will implement better, leaving the electorate with little else but personality to distinguish between the two at the polls.

In this nascent phase, themes have been seen emerging and ebbing away as the party’s leadership changes, but nothing as long-lasting and all encompassing to warrant documentation in an enduring document, a la Freedom Charter. The open opportunity society is the current theme under party leader Helen Zille, but even that, which does not deal directly with social justice and its related non-free market concepts such as income redistribution, may be already out of date given James’ ruminations.

And as the party seemingly has no enduring document to which to moor itself, who is to say that in the unlikely event that someone from within the party’s more right-leaning minority rises to power, they will not steer the party in a different direction to the one Zille pushes in the post-fight-back era? This slight schism in liberal outlook is what cost Athol Trollip his job as the party’s Parliamentary leader as Zille attempts to catapult her government-in-waiting into office.

Some party members have speculated that the DA is likely to shed some of its more right-leaning members (and gain left-leaning ones in the process) if Zille does succeed in entrenching this brand of South Africa-specific liberalism to which James refers. But even if it does succeed in unseating the ANC, it is unlikely to maintain its control if every change in leadership ushers in a change in ideology. DM

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