South Africa, Politics

Analysis: DA’s young Turks tackle the race issue

By Osiame Molefe 14 May 2012

The ANC has been working frenetically to label the Democratic Alliance “an apartheid-era party of whites for whites”, a smart yet underhanded strategy to keep the DA from the prized black vote. The Democratic Alliance has not only been doing far too little to dispel this, it’s been at times fuelling it. This should change if the party’s young Turks have their say. By OSIAME MOLEFE.

Open-air loos, racist bicycle lanes, MyCiti buses, virtually all-white male Cabinets, professional blacks and education refugees. These (and more) have been Democratic Alliance’s lay-ups to the ANC’s political slam dunk: The DA is an apartheid-era party by whites for whites opposed to transformation.

The tactic is Machiavellian, but politics is a dirty game. And repeated long enough, lies become the truth. The way the ANC – particularly the Western Cape ANC – sees it, if they can successfully brand the DA as racist, it will stop the party’s “blue wave” from spreading out from white enclaves to other parts of the country.

ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman last month penned an open letter to DA leader Helen Zille accusing her “Botox regime” of having hidden its “petticoat of racism”. ANC leader in the Western Cape legislature Lynne Brown and the party’s provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile have also in recent times had a swipe at Zille and the DA, accusing leader and party of seeking to entrench white privilege.

For its part, the DA, believing itself to be “post-racial”, has refused to be drawn into racial politics. Under the leadership of Helen Zille, the party instead focused on administering the areas it controlled, believing a record of clean governance and delivering services will see it roll into the many areas floundering under the ANC’s administration. But in South Africa, like it or not, race is a key electoral issue and ignoring it has seen the DA make little inroads despite a number of ANC governance failures.

As the DA celebrated its growth in the 2011 municipal elections, the ANC and its alliance partners took it upon themselves to point out correctly that the ANC’s support had not waned. The DA took votes mainly from other parties.

However evolving positions are de rigueur in politics and the DA’s position on race has begun to shift, guided mainly by its younger leaders. Instead of running from race, they run to it.

Most recently, DA national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane took it upon himself to counsel two models who’d posted racist comments on Twitter. Conveniently, one model was white and the other black, which fits right into the blockhole of the DA young Turks’ view on the topic: South Africa’s racial past is an issue to be tackled by everyone on all sides of the colour divides.

“For many black South Africans, the challenge remains to overcome the burdens of the past without becoming embittered by memories of its many injustices. For many white South Africans, the challenge is to acknowledge that racism does not just exist in the minds of black people. It is a real and debilitating fact of life in South Africa,” the party’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said in a speech last week at Stellenbosch University.

Mazibuko spoke about having experienced and being angered by oblique, subtle and almost invisible racism. This is a significant shift considering how musicians Simphiwe Dana and Lindiwe Suttle received heavy put downs from party leader Helen Zille when they tweeted about their experiences of the same. In addition to a leadership not reflective of the general population, the party’s Achilles’ heel has long thought to be un-attuned to black sensitivities on race and soft on taking whites to task for the historical context privileged position they occupy.

But Mazibuko cautioned that in speaking about it, she does not seek to give race any more legitimacy than it deserves.

“The only way we will ever be able to build one, united nation is if each community – be it formed upon political, racial, ethnic, religious or any other line – makes the defence of the rights of other communities part of its daily activities,” Mazibuko told the Stellenbosch audience.

This was not the first time Mazibuko has used this line. She said the same thing to students at the University of Cape Town as they tussled over the university’s race-based admissions policy. She told them that race, in post-apartheid South Africa, is arguably more important than matters related to public policy because policymaking unfolds in the context of the race debate.

Mazibuko’s party in recent times took on Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder for espousing the “vacant land” theory and government spokesman Jimmy Manyi for his claim that there is an over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape. But a few issues still remain.

Racist models and, arguably, Manyi and Mulder are soft targets. When former president FW de Klerk, who is still respected among some circles, defended apartheid on CNN, Mazibuko released a surprisingly tepid statement calling de Klerk’s remarks “unfortunate”. De Klerk, pretending the system was not firmly rooted in racial hatred, claimed apartheid was created in the interest of justice for all South Africans, black and white. It was a bald-faced lie, and Mazibuko might be taken to task for treading too gently in her response.

Also, recognising the sensitivities around race and apartheid’s legacy is one thing, but translating that into policy is quite another. Mazibuko seemed to acknowledge this herself. Potentially ruffling the feathers of some in the party’s usual support base, she told the Stellenbosch students: “Reconciliation is toothless without its attendant process: redress. The legacy of racial discrimination is real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds.”

The DA’s open opportunity society has been relatively muted on redress, instead punting education more heavily. For example, the party’s shadow finance minister Tim Harris in March revealed an alternative budget firmly rooted in the Keynesian “rising tide lifts all ships” philosophy. But in a society where some don’t even have ships due to historic inequalities, a rising tide drowns some.

At its August 2012 policy conference, the party will reveal the meat behind its 8% growth plan. The policies unveiled will be the deeds by which Mazibuko’s words should be judged. It should be interesting to see whether the policies tackle redress and inequality directly or whether they are left to the secondary effects of growth.

And finally, it might backfire to have only the likes of Mazibuko and Maimane sharing their thoughts on race or speaking out against racism, especially considering their view that dealing with apartheid’s racial legacy is a task for all South Africans. If the old guard, who are more numerous and influential, fall back to leave this issue to the young Turks, it might give a cynical ANC more ammunition to say that at the core, the DA remains unchanged. DM

Read more:

  • We must recognise that racism exists, on Politicsweb.

Photo: Lindiwe Mazibuko. DAILY MAVERICK/Osiame Molefe.



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