Op-Ed

We need to avoid being dogmatic about the diversity debate

By Sinethemba Zonke 12 April 2018

While American media is open about its political and economic stances, South African media claims objectivity while falling into the trap of homogenous views on certain subject matters such as race, equality and immigration. The DA’s congress could have only elicited a toxic response in this kind of environment filled with diversity fundamentalists. By SINETHEMBA ZONKE.

South Africa continues to come to terms with centuries of oppression of particular groups of people based on their gender, race, religion and sexuality.

With our apartheid past it is understandable that these issues will continue to be a sensitive point for our country, especially as a core agenda of our post-apartheid nation is creating an open society, where old prejudices no longer constrain the ability of people to progress in life.

The gendered and racialised poverty, unemployment and inequality two decades after democracy highlight how critical a job it is to eliminate remaining structural impediments, which persist in various forms in our communities, private institutions and organisations.

While diversity and equality are noble goals, there is an emerging dogmatic approach to them that will impede the objective of building an open society. We are starting to see an emergence of religious-like fundamentalist views on what diversity and anti-racism should be.

This was very apparent over the past Sunday in reaction to the outcomes of the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Congress.

There was a considerable amount of animus towards the make-up of the DA’s Federal Executive top eight, which included five white men, two black men, and one black woman. There was further consternation over the DA’s adoption of its “diversity” pillar, which was preceded by a debate over the issue of racial quotas to achieve demographic representation within the party.

While the party rejected the quotas, it did adopt a clause which stated it would “take active steps to promote and advance diversity in its own ranks”.

The reaction from the general public on social media was predictably hysterical. However, it was the response from media and journalists which was the most astonishing and disappointing in its bias and lack of objectivity.

South African media displayed an obsessive focus on race and gender which resulted in it glossing over the election of the leaders of the DA Youth and DA Women’s Network (DAWN), both positions competed for solely by black people.

The position of Federal Chairperson was also competed for by a woman, Annelie Lotriet, who was completely forgotten in the race that the media turned into a tug-of-war between male mayors, Solly Msimang and Athol Trollip.

There were also three diverse candidates who competed against Thomas Walters for the Deputy Chairperson of the Federal Council position, among which was Natasha Mazzone, an MP who has made an incredible impact in Parliament in the State Capture inquiries.

All these diverse individuals who competed in what looked like an open, free and fair contestation were ignored in service of a fundamentalist approach on diversity by the media.

When including the leader of the DA Youth, Luyolo Mphithi, and DAWN, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, the top leadership of the DA is made up of 10 people, splitting the contingent 50/50 on racial demographics. However, this did not meet the box-ticking exercise expected by media pundits.

The subject of diversity also crowded out other discussions and policy positions debated and adopted at the congress such as the party’s stance on the minimum wage, in which the DA adopted an opt-out clause for people who may not want to participate in the government’s sector-wide minimum wage standards.

There was no thorough interrogation of this policy on its merits or lack thereof, but it was used to confirm to some that the DA is anti-poor, and therefore anti-black.

The other issue that got a mention was a clause on recalling DA members deployed to government positions. The media’s renaming of the clause to the “De Lille Clause” will no doubt link up the Patricia De Lille matter which is already racialised as the Mayor of Cape Town’s fights to keep her job.

As a result of the limited scope in which diversity is understood in South Africa, primarily on race and gender, diversity fundamentalists ignore the dismal failures of the likes of Bathabile Dlamini and Jacob Zuma to advance the interests of the black and female citizens.

The proposition that demographic representation will necessary lead to extensively progressive outcomes for those represented is debatable.

A 2008 journal article from Parliamentary Affairs titled The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda presents an interesting perspective on the impact that women’s representation has on policy outcomes. In the journal it is concluded that increased women’s representation in Parliament “has had little effect on policy outputs” in research of mostly developed Western countries as well as a few African nations.

The inclusion of women is still important but thinking that imposing this via a quota-based system is what’s needed for bottom-up social change ignores the numerous examples of failures of such across African governments and elsewhere.

Dismissing those who don’t fit racial or gender quota profiles is itself bigoted, as there is no rational argument to say a man cannot advance feminist issues better than some women, or a white person cannot do the same for people of colour. If that was the case then white men like Mark Heywood leading institutions like SECTION27 should not be trusted to do the sterling work they already do since they don’t meet diversity criteria.

South Africa needs to avoid the situation that is occurring in some Western democracies where it has become difficult to have a rational and objective discussion about sensitive issues such as diversity, mainly because of how particular groups approach alternative opinions or dissent with a religious fervour, seeking to eliminate heresy.

African-American linguistics Professor, John McWhorter, has spoken about this issue which he has dubbed “the religion of anti-racism”, which includes rituals, sermons and priests. Discussions and platforms for debate are no longer about the competition of ideas, but merely the affirmation of particular notions held up high as the gospel.

Media, particularly some journalists, have played a critical part in spreading this kind of behaviour, here in South Africa and abroad. While American media is open about its political and economic stances, South African media claims objectivity while falling into the trap of homogenous views on certain subject matters such as race, equality and immigration. The DA’s congress could have only elicited a toxic response in this kind of environment filled with diversity fundamentalists.

The fundamentalist stance on diversity has been an ongoing trend in South Africa for some years. We have seen a blurring of the lines between journalists and analysts as many journalists now just offer their own opinions when asking questions of politicians or when they report about politics to the public.

The press conference held after the DA Congress showed this, when the diversity issue was the main topic covered in the briefing.

One of the most cringeworthy interviews to be aired in South Africa was the discussion between EWN’s Clement Manyathela and DA leader Mmusi Maimane at last year’s Daily Maverick: The Gathering. After a speech by Maimane outlining a broad range of issues, Manyathela spent the majority of his interview with Maimane quibbling over the number of white people in the DA’s marches and whether the DA can get over the perception that it is a party for white people and interests. The actual issues that Maimane had spoken about in his speech were barely touched on. It ironic in that the media continues to ask the DA to defend itself against a perception that is not merely something that South Africans think, but is consistently reinforced by the media itself, without critical analysis on whether it is a fair perception; and therefore, creating a perpetual feedback loop.

In a recent discussion on 702 on the Eusebius McKaiser Show, political researcher and PhD scholar, Alexandra Leisegang, received the treatment of one who can be seen as a heretic in the eyes of diversity fundamentalists. Leisegang said that in her view she cared about the diversity of ideas and opinions of individuals, instead of mere gender, when it comes to her preference of leaders. That she as a woman would not place a high value on a woman candidate over one with specific ideas and opinions that align with hers seemed odd to the host and some listeners.

The manner in which the media and some analysts engage on the subject is akin to believers unable to evolve from an outdated interpretation of their theology. In the diversity dogma, adherents lean on gospels of critical race theory, which are held as the final arguments on the issue, and therefore if one does not defer to the authority of these gospels one becomes a heretic.

Diversity is not an unimportant matter in a country like South Africa; it is critical for our economic and political stability, as well as our growth prospects. We need to be able to utilise the full human potential that is in this country in the best ways possible.

We also need to avoid misguided excuses that lean on the myth of meritocracy which pretends that subconscious biases in how people are chosen for positions don’t exist. Being a lot less rigid and more flexible on the issue of diversity, and in fact allowing for a diversity of ideas and opinions on how we can create a more egalitarian society, is an even more important ideal that needs to be defended and adhered to for this country to move forward. DM

Sinethemba Zonke is a political analyst with a focus on African economic and political issues.

Photo: Some of the hundreds of young people gather during a mass, multi racial pray group to pray for peace and calm after clashes overnight at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, 25 February 2016. (EPA)

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