South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Real progressives reject groupthink

Op-Ed: Real progressives reject groupthink
Photo: Supporters gather and watch as Leader of South Africas opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party

Given South Africa’s history and the DA’s own intellectual heritage, it is hard to see how racial groupthink and racial identitarianism could be construed as “progressive”. If anything, they are profoundly retrogressive. By MICHAEL CARDO and GAVIN DAVIS.

Recent media reports suggest there is a “progressive” faction, incorporating a so-called “black caucus”, that wishes to steer the DA’s Federal Congress in April towards particular outcomes.

If these reports are to be believed, the “progressives” want race quotas applied to the party’s representatives in Parliament and other legislatures. The “progressives” (who are almost always quoted anonymously) speak a sort of dialect of ANC-ese, in which terms like racial “transformation” and demographic “representivity” are parroted unselfconsciously.

This bastardisation of the word “progressive” is deeply ironic. After all, it was the DA’s progenitor, the Progressive Party, that used the word “progressive” to signal its opposition to the racial nationalism of the apartheid government.

Given South Africa’s history and the DA’s own intellectual heritage, it is hard to see how racial groupthink and racial identitarianism could be construed as “progressive”. If anything, they are profoundly retrogressive.

Perhaps the inversion is a result of the media age we are living in. Often, over-worked journalists substitute, for analysis, ready-to-wear labels like “progressive” and “conservative”, without taking the time to interrogate the substance of those descriptors.

Or perhaps it stems from the Orwellian Newspeak employed to discuss ideas about identity on university campuses, social media and – increasingly – in the body politic. This lexicon has become the lingua franca of racial and gender identity politics.

In this brave new world, identity is no longer shaped by the expression of an individual’s authentic self. Instead, identity is determined by skin colour, genitalia or some other ascriptive trait – just as it was during apartheid.

And so, perversely, it has become “progressive” to revert to racial groupthink and undermine individual autonomy. It is now “progressive” to think and act in terms of the group; to require people to conform to an imposed group identity; to mobilise support along racial lines; to assume that people can only be represented by others of the same colour or gender; to employ binary formulations like “whiteness” and “blackness” in the manner of “four-legs-good-two-legs-bad”; and to silence dissenting voices by bludgeoning them into submission.

Anything that contradicts this inverted form of “progressivism” is dismissed, with that pat and patronising pronouncement, as “problematic”.

But, as Christopher Hitchens once observed,

People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with. One does not banish this spectre by invoking it.”

And so it is in the Democratic Alliance. We should banish the spectre of racial and gender group-think by rejecting it, not embracing it.

This task takes on a particular urgency as the DA’s Federal Congress prepares to meet between 7 and 8 April in Pretoria. The congress will elect leaders, adopt policy and consider proposed constitutional amendments dealing inter alia with the DA’s approach to race and gender.


Amendment number one of the 105 constitutional amendments compiled by the DA’s Constitutional Review Committee relates primarily to race. It proposes to introduce the following new clause into Chapter 1 of the party’s constitution:

South Africa is a richly diverse society. Its people come from different origins, worship in different ways, have different cultures and customs;

Diversity is one of South Africans’ richest assets. The party celebrates diversity and strives to ensure that every group, every language, every religion and every traditional custom is respected and upheld;

The party solemnly subscribes to the preamble to the Constitution of South Africa that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in diversity’;

The party will to the best of its ability attempt to replicate diversity in its own ranks.”

At first glance, this is a welcome addition to the DA’s constitution. Diversity has long been a cherished value of the party. We have always recognised that diversity is a strength, and we have taken steps to actively promote it. However, this clause – in its current formulation – does very little to distinguish the DA from the ANC’s doctrine of racial representivity.

According to the ANC’s world-view of “representivity”, every organisation needs to be “transformed” until its demographic breakdown is an exact mirror of the population as a whole. The job of each person in the organisation is to represent the racial category that apartheid imposed on them, with little room for individual agency or personal autonomy.

Diversity, on the other hand, is rooted in the liberal notion of the primacy of the individual. In the DA, we don’t believe that people are the mere sums of their demographic parts. Instead, we believe that people have personal agency and autonomy that transcends the colour of their skin, the language they speak or the circumstances into which they were born. Diversity is about drawing on the contributions of people with different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences while recognising that no two people have the same point of view on all things, even if they share certain ascriptive traits.

These two approaches to race – the racial representivity of the ANC and the non-racial diversity of the DA – represent “clear blue water” between the two parties. It is a distinction that we must constantly emphasise so that all South Africans understand the difference in our two approaches, and the consequences of each.

However, the proposed constitutional amendment does nothing to distinguish our approach from the ANC’s. Instead of clarifying the distinction between representivity and diversity, it blurs the lines.

There are at least three problems with the clause as it is currently formulated.

First, the proposed amendment talks of different groups, cultures, languages and religions but says nothing about how free-thinking individuals add to the diversity of an organisation. There is no sense that diversity should be rooted in individualism, and no acknowledgement that no two human beings are the same.

Second, the proposed amendment says nothing of the need to protect the individual from dominance by others in the name of culture, religion or race. Instead, it says that we must strive to “ensure that every group, every language, every religion and every traditional custom is respected and upheld”. But what if a group, religion or traditional custom overrides the rights of an individual. Would we still say it needs to be respected and upheld? Surely not.

Third, and most seriously, the proposed amendment is a significant departure from the DA’s value of non-racial diversity, and a tentative step closer to the ANC’s doctrine of racial representivity: “The party will to the best of its ability attempt to replicate diversity in its own ranks.” (emphasis added)

When you replicate something, you make an exact copy of it. In this case, the proposers of the amendment want the DA to mirror South Africa’s demographics defined exclusively in terms of racial groups, language and religion. There is little doubt that, if we embark on this path, we’ll be on a slippery slope towards ANC-style race quotas to ensure that “diversity” is “replicated” in the DA. This is racial representivity by another name, and we should reject it.


Amendment number 24 proposes an addition to the DA’s Constitution relating to the Democratic Alliance Women’s Network (DAWN). It reads as follows:

“… all female members will automatically be members of the Democratic Alliance Women’s Network unless they indicate to the contrary.” (emphasis added)

This amendment, while seemingly innocuous, follows the same trend towards ANC-style representivity. Indeed, it seeks to do something that the DA has never attempted in its history: to automatically classify all members of the DA according to an ascriptive trait – in this case, whether they were born with XX or XY chromosomes.

It has long been a cornerstone of liberal thought – and DA thinking – that individuals have the right to decide who they are, and how they express themselves. It is up to us to decide our own identity, and nobody has the right to choose our identities for us.

There are people in the DA who identify strongly with their race or their language, others who identify strongly with their gender and others who choose to identify with their sexual orientation. Some people eschew all ascribed traits and, instead, identify with certain ideological schools of thought such as libertarianism or social liberalism. Others reject such labels altogether, preferring to define themselves according to a unique set of characteristics that make them who they are.

This amendment, by rigidly classifying DA members according to their gender, changes that. Not only is this an affront to people who consider themselves neither male nor female, it curtails the free choice of individuals to self-identify as whatever they like. By so doing, it moves us away from a liberal notion of diversity and takes us closer to the ANC’s doctrine of representivity. We should therefore reject it.

When that small band of liberals finally quit the United Party in 1959 – worn down by the UP’s pandering to nationalist hegemony, its policy prevarications and weak leadership – they chose the name of their new party with care.

The Progressive Party sought to unite supporters on the basis of shared values and principles, not race. It subscribed to nonracialism, not racial nationalism. And it kept alive the idea, in the words of Colin Eglin during his acceptance speech as Leader of the party in 1971, that:

Never, never, never, must we step back from our goal… of the right of each and every South African to make his contribution to society and to the nation, not on the basis of his race, colour or creed, but on the basis of his ability and his worth.”

This idea has underpinned both the Democratic Party and the DA’s approach to diversity in a number of seminal internal documents over the past 20 years, including Death of The Rainbow Nation, James Selfe and Joe Seremane’s Promoting Diversity in the Democratic Alliance, Dene Smuts’s Equality and Corrective Action and Ryan Coetzee’s Becoming a Party for All the People: A New Approach for the DA.

Of course, times change and progress requires fresh and innovative thinking. But some of the constitutional amendments that will serve before the DA’s Congress suggest no familiarity with – let alone awareness of – the party’s own tradition of ideas and values which distinguish us from our electoral competitors.

To make progress we need to banish the spectre of racial nationalism, not invoke it. If we don’t, we risk becoming a party of regressives. And so the time has come for the real progressives – those who believe fervently in individual liberty and non-racial liberalism – to stand up and be counted. DM

Cardo and Davis are DA MPs and delegates to the party’s Federal Congress on 7 and 8 April. This article was originally a letter sent to all DA delegates.

Photo: Supporters gather and watch as Leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, Mmusi Maimane, addresses some of the thousands of people who attended the party’s final pre-election rally in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 July 2016. EPA/STR


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